A new survey shows that nearly 80 percent of federal employees who teleworked during the pandemic say it has increased their dedication to the mission. Can federal agencies build on the momentum?

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After years of agencies nibbling around the edges of telework, COVID-19 forced the issue. Federal agencies embraced telework out of necessity. Just two years ago, less than a quarter of federal workers worked from home. During the pandemic, that number surged to three quarters. But now that we have momentum, what will it take to make telework stick into the future—and be a winning proposition for agencies, their employees, and the people they serve?

To get at these answers, EHC surveyed a random sample of over 500 federal employees across the United States in June 2020. We wanted to know how employees and supervisors feel about their teleworking experience amid COVID-19; how much trust do stakeholders have in telework today; the opportunities and challenges; and what changes need to happen to keep telework a viable proposition after the pandemic.

A sea change with staying power

We have strong indications that telework will not roll back to pre-pandemic levels. As employees return to government offices, they will require more space per person. Social distancing requirements should factor into how offices are configured for months to come. And long after mandates for extra space expire, we can expect people to feel much less comfortable working elbow-to-elbow with their peers than they did pre-pandemic. Unsurprisingly, a majority (68 percent) of federal employees want to continue teleworking more than they did before the pandemic, and 88 percent believe that their agencies have the resources to support telework. They’re sold on the proposition.

Not that the federal government has any interest in looking backward. Even before COVID-19, the OPM promoted telework as “an important tool for achieving a resilient and results-oriented workforce” and a way to give employees “flexibility in meeting personal and professional responsibilities while ensuring agencies meet critical missions.” And in written testimony prepared in July 2020 for the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Global Workplace Analytics estimated that even half-time telework could yield government savings over $11B per year.

As the US Government continues to make strides in the policy and technology aspects that will enable continued widespread telework, it could surf the present moment to a rosy future. But there’s still work to do. Beneath the current wave lie three hazards related to people and culture. Federal agencies need to navigate these three carefully to make the most of the current impetus.

1: The Telework Trust Gap

Eagle Hill’s survey found that over 80 percent of federal employees who telework believe their supervisors trust them to get their work done while teleworking. Yet only 62 percent of federal supervisors say that they trust their direct reports to get their work done while teleworking. This “trust gap” exposes the pitfalls created by government’s history of managing by input (hours) rather than by outcome. Many federal managers, it seems, now feel uneasy switching away from their familiar and comfortable, but limited-utility, practices.

Of course, organizational culture weighs heavily on how large of trust gap different government entities will see. Some missions demand extraordinary levels of solidarity and collaboration. Those organizations already have cultures centered on supporting closeness and trust among leadership and their teams. Other cultures, where employees work in more individualistic roles, will likely see much larger gaps in telework trust.

For these organizations, we recommend:

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Embrace optimism about the benefits of telework

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Establish new thinking for the new normal

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Change how you communicate

2: Balancing the Needs of the Individual and the Group

Eagle Hill’s survey shows that individual behaviors and attitudes toward work have improved during teleworking. For example, employees in our survey say they feel …

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However, respondents also feel less connected (66 percent) and less collaborative (51 percent) with their peers while teleworking.

Connection has proven implications for employees’ well-being at an individual level, increasing personal fulfillment and reducing stress (and burnout). Those factors weigh heavily on organizational performance as well, because connection fuels creativity, teamwork and collaboration.

Telework does not have to mean isolation, but it does mean federal agencies will have to work harder than before to maintain close and supportive cultures. To foster a work culture where telework becomes a win for both individuals and teams, we recommend:

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Set team norms on how to work together virtually

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Design virtual interactions to be inclusive

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Turn telework to its best advantages

3: Shoring-up Performance Fundamentals

Our survey uncovered lots of evidence that teleworking employees feel at sea with regards to how their careers progress from this point. For example, many employees we surveyed say the nature of their work (46 percent) and expectations around their work (43 percent) have changed. Yet they also say they’re not clear what success looks like (47 percent). Most troubling, only a quarter of respondents (27 percent) say they are getting enough coaching to succeed in this new telework environment. We recommend:

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Calibrate performance and career management processes

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Provide the tools to help employees succeed

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Elevate personal responsibility and accountability

Waves may wash away what’s familiar, but they can also reveal unexpected treasures. Similarly, we see real positives in the wave of dramatic change that 2020 has wrought in federal workplaces.

While recent OPM studies have shown an overall drop in federal employee morale, Eagle Hill’s survey shows that teleworking during the pandemic has given a welcome boost to federal employees’ commitment to their work. Agencies that path an intentional way through the sudden changes stand to see a future energized by their employees’ renewed enthusiasm and loaded with possibility.

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Methodology

The 2020 Eagle Hill Consulting Federal Telework Survey was conducted online by Luminas in June 2020. The online survey included 509 respondents drawn from a panel of consumers who are federal employees and were screened for teleworking. The survey polled respondents on teleworking during the COVID-19 Pandemic.