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The Future of the Federal Workplace

July 26, 2021

July 26, 2021

											 Dong2 C Norman

By Norman Dong, Managing Director at FD Stonewater, Former Commissioner of the Public Building Service at the U.S. General Services Administration, and Academy Fellow

The Future of the Federal Workplace

Over the past month, I have enjoyed the opportunity to moderate two Academy panel discussions that featured government officials and private sector experts sharing their perspective on the future of the federal workplace. There has been significant focus and attention on this issue due to OMB M-21-25, which provides guidance to federal agencies as they plan for returning employees to the workplace.

These federal agency plans, which were due to OMB on July 19, establish a foundation for the longer-term outlook for managing the federal workforce and the federal workplace. The recent OMB guidance reflects the importance of integrating workforce and workplace planning, even when we are not dealing with a pandemic.

Over the past 16 months, federal agencies discovered that large numbers of employees were able to work productively without being tethered to a single physical location. This has tremendous human capital benefits, as agencies are better able to recruit and retain talent from across the country. OMB M-21-25 states, “Remote work also may offer opportunities for agencies to reach into new communities for which federal employment may not have been desirable because it traditionally has required employees to relocate.”

But the benefits of telework and remote work go far beyond geographic flexibility, as employees who must deal with child-care, aging parents, and other personal demands on their time now have additional options to balance federal employment into the competing demands on their time.

As agencies plan for the future of the federal workplace, there is increasing emphasis on a hybrid approach that reflects an overall increase in telework and remote work, combined with time in the office, for many employees. Although most federal agencies will likely never fully revert to the workplace centric model we once knew, neither will they adhere to the scale of remote work experienced during the height of the pandemic.

The OMB guidance recognizes this, stating how “the office will remain a critical place to collaborate, maintain connections, access secure resources, perform specialized work, and serve as a place for those who cannot or do not want to work from home.”

As agencies return to the office in some way, my advice to leaders is:

Recognize that the federal experience with this hybrid model is quite limited and largely untested. Agencies’ pre-pandemic experience centered around the physical workplace. Then during COVID, large numbers of employees were completely remote. But in this new hybrid world, where much of our daily interaction and collaboration must bridge the divide between those who are working in the office and those who are working remotely, the organizational and interpersonal dynamics may be more challenging than we realize.

Fully consider the challenges and risks of increased remote work and telework, and the tradeoffs made in the process. There has been a tremendous amount of optimism as we discuss the potential benefits of increased remote work and telework in the federal government, and rightfully so. But to what extent have we fully considered the limitations of increased remote work and telework, and what organizations and employees will be giving up in the process? There has been some limited recognition of the importance of informal and unstructured conversations among employees that can only take place in the workplace setting. According to one government colleague, “I often go to physical meetings to get a minute of one-on-one time with someone attending these meetings. I haven’t made a new contact since the pandemic began.” Based on my own federal experience, I understand his point completely. The informal, unstructured interactions with our peers and colleagues at the agency worksite can be just as important as the more formal meetings that fill our Outlook calendars each day.

Reexamine agency approaches to managing their real estate portfolio. With the increase in telework and remote work that we see on the horizon, some agencies may feel like they have far too much space on their hands. Agencies may be inclined to shed massive amounts of space now, based on the assumption that large-scale telework and remote work is here to stay. But is this true, or will we see a very different attitude 12-24 months from now, after we have lived the reality of the hybrid workplace?

Don’t expect to have it all figured out on Day 1. As federal decision-makers try to determine the long-term impact of the pandemic, some may be feeling pressure to have this all figured out. Simple human nature (not to mention OMB’s July 19 deadline) compels us to want answers now. But we are still dealing with a pandemic that is not yet under control, and it will take several years before we understand how the pandemic will impact agency space requirements over the longer-term.

It’s okay for the return to the office to be a work-in-progress. As agencies submit their plans for returning employees to the workplace, federal decision-makers recognize how their planning is still very much a work-in-progress. Conventional wisdom among federal officials seems to be 1) act based on the information available now; 2) learn from the upcoming agency experience in next 12-24 months; and 3) recalibrate the approach over time. Tom Chaleki from the Department of Homeland Security framed the issue this way, “We reserve the right to get smarter about these issues as we progress.”

Moving forward, learning and iteration on workforce and workplace issues amidst this uncertainty will be the key to ensure that the federal government is ready for the future, not just reacting to the moment.