By Dan Gephart, November 23, 2020

On the heels of positive vaccine news, talk about the eventual return to workplace normalcy has picked up. But that normalcy does not necessarily mean a sudden end to remote working, especially if government workers have a say.

Eighty-five percent of state and local government employees who did not work at home before COVID-19 want to continue working remotely permanently, at least part of the time, according to a recent survey by CPS HR Consulting. This fascinating report Leading Through a Pandemic: The Impact of COVID-19 on the Public-Sector Workforce, like most of the organization’s work, was focused on state and local governments. But it’s not a stretch to think that many federal employees feel the same as their more local counterparts.

Agency leaders are embracing telework, too. Several told Congress last week they also hope to make telework more permanent in the post-pandemic world. The CPS HR Consulting survey determined that “government should also view the demand for remote work as an opportunity to expand the search for talent (i.e., recruiting may no longer be limited by geography)” and that “leaders need to systematically ask employees for feedback to identify and meet the needs of all employees.” CPS HR Consulting suggests that government organizations:

  • Equip managers and supervisors with the skills to manage results and outcomes (and not just time and attendance)
  • Redesign jobs to adapt them to remote work
  • Acknowledge and communicate that employees working from home must have the flexibility to balance work and personal lives
  • Provide the tools and resources remote workers need, especially technology

“Effective leadership, flexible work environments and effective use of technology can drive employee productivity, well-being and engagement and, therefore, organizational performance – regardless of where employees are working.”

This month, we continue our conversation with Bob Lavigna, director of CPS HR’s Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement. Lavigna (pictured above) is the former vice president of research for the Partnership for Public Service and author of Engaging Government Employees: Motivate and Inspire Your People to Achieve Superior Performance.

DG: How do you “equip managers and supervisors with the skills to manage results and outcomes (and not just time and attendance)?”

BL: When employees are working remotely, it’s no longer possible for managers/supervisors to know if employees are working productively simply by seeing them at their desks or work sites. Managing in this new and different environment is often difficult. According to one government HR executive, managing remote employees means ditching the, “If I can’t see you, you’re not working” mentality.

Instead, leaders need to measure and manage goals, results and outcomes, not just time and attendance. This often-difficult transition requires new performance metrics, tools, systems, and expectations. And, where possible, even linking financial rewards to results.

To help managers and supervisors adapt, organizations are providing training, tools, resources and tips on leading a remote workforce. Many of these programs are online (including our own CPS HR Consulting training curriculum). For example, one city has assembled a manager’s toolkit that includes tips, articles, webinars, etc. on managing a remote workforce. Organizations are also setting the expectation that managers and supervisors need to be more flexible. According to one government executive, “We’ve had to drastically change,” putting aside the usual focus on counting workers’ hours and days. “People who have kids need to take an hour off to put someone down for a nap or to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”

Government may also need to change how leaders are identified and selected. Organizations need to select managers and supervisors who can manage effectively in this new environment, instead of advancing employees because they have good technical skills or have long tenures.

DG: The report revealed that employees were “anxious” and “stressed” and unsettled, but that was early on in the crisis. Do you think that the answers would be different now? 

BL: Good question. There is some evidence (e.g., from Gallup) that engagement levels were on the rise after declining at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the recent resurgence of the coronavirus is likely to keep everyone unsettled and on edge. I don’t think anxiety and stress will decline until we have an effective vaccine and see some light at the end of this tunnel.

DG: There’s a general assumption among many remote workers that when you work at home, you work more hours. While 34 percent of remote working respondents said they were working more, the majority are not. Is that general assumption just wrong?

BL: I think that 34 percent is a substantial number. But I question the assumption that, during COVID-19, working remotely automatically translates into working more. Given the other factors that affect the ability to work remotely, like the availability of technology and personal responsibilities such as dealing with kids and spouses at home, I don’t think it’s possible yet to evaluate whether the new working environment has resulted in increased workloads. Let’s see what happens when things get back to “normal.” What has clearly changed, however, is when work is getting done.Employees operating remotely are working when they can, while also balancing their personal responsibilities. Therefore, the traditional workday has been stretched.

And we believe this is a permanent change. As the research conducted by the Institute and others has shown, employees working remotely for the first time want to continue this arrangement permanently, at least part-time. In other words, the world of work has dramatically changed. Organizations, including in government, need to adapt to – and not resist – this evolution. Otherwise, government will not be able to attract and retain top talent.

DG: Some employees view attempts to engage them skeptically. How do you get past that?

BL: In our work conducting engagement surveys across the nation, we’ve encountered this skepticism. I remember one employee who stated during an employee engagement kickoff meeting that, in his opinion, the organization’s focus on engagement was merely a cynical attempt to squeeze more work out of employees. My answer was that efforts to improve engagement – done right – should be a win-win. Employees feel better about their work and their organization, and, therefore, are motivated to deliver for the people they serve.

But what does “done right” mean? It means surveying employees to understand empirically what the workforce issues are, preserving the confidentiality of employees’ responses, sharing survey results, making a long-term commitment to improving engagement and – most important – taking action on survey results. Organizations that survey and then fail to act on the results will see a decline in engagement – and an increase in skepticism. And they will deserve these outcomes.

DG: What role does onboarding play in the eventual success or failure of employee engagement efforts? And, if it does have an impact, how do you make sure that remote onboarding lays the groundwork for successful employee engagement?

BL: You only get one chance to make a first impression. Research, including by the Partnership for Public Service, has shown that effectively onboarding new employees results in a higher level of engagement, lower turnover and faster time to full productivity.

But it’s important to define what onboarding is – an integrated set of activities during the new employee’s entire first year that provides the information, support and resources the employee needs to succeed.

Of course, like most activities with a remote workforce, onboarding becomes more complicated. But the fundamentals are the same – provide tools and resources, connect with the supervisor, assign work, set expectations, deliver training and provide feedback. For remote workers, these steps may need to be done virtually. I have worked remotely from my home in Madison, WI for two organizations (way before COVID). In both cases, I was onboarded pretty seamlessly, including setting up my laptop, printer, etc. It can be done, even with a remote workforce.

[Editor’s note: Bring FELTG’s popular webinar training Manging a Mobile Workforce: Tools for Accountability to your agency. For more information, contact Dan Gephart at Gephart@FELTG.com]

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