Hybrid work may be permanent fixture for government

As federal agencies seek to define the post-pandemic work environment, hybrid schedules are predicted to continue within all levels of the government, according to a report from Cisco Systems Inc.

More than 90% of technology decision-makers in federal, state and local governments are satisfied with their remote work arrangement, with a current average of four remote days per week. Almost 60% work entirely remotely, the report found in surveying 300 executives, administrators and IT professionals in government from February to March.

“Regardless of whether you’re talking about civilian service or national security, including the DoD and intelligence communities, at the end of the day I think this gives them a much needed opportunity to truly modernize,” said Marcus Moffett, Cisco’s chief technology officer for the U.S. public sector, told Federal Times in an interview.

As required by the White House’s Office of Personnel Management and listed in its 2021 telework guidance, every federal executive agency must establish a policy under which eligible employees may telework. Agency attempts to curb telework for government employees have been fought by unions, most recently by one representing employees in the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Bureau of Fiscal Services. Even the U.S. Army is testing how well remote work fits into its office environment.

Telework allows employees to work regularly scheduled days on site and at another location, like their home. It’s not a fully remote environment, though OPM found requests for remote work are becoming more common.

Moffett called the telework experiment imposed by the pandemic “an 850+ day living lab.” Out of it came the finding that workers not just favor, but prioritize, workplace flexibility.

These attitudes can have implications for job churn in the public, as well as private, sector. Sixty-four percent of those surveyed for Cisco’s 2021 Hybrid Work Index said workplace flexibility determines whether they leave a position, and flexibility in working from home and setting a schedule had the largest impact on job satisfaction.

At the 2022 Acquisition Conference hosted by the Professional Services Council, officials from OPM and the General Services Administration discussed how the “Great Resignation” of millions workers in the private sector is better viewed as a “great reshuffling” among government agencies, in which workers moved in search of better benefits, such as workplace flexibility.

“Some of the causes are around the latitude that agencies have to determine what remote work, what hybrid work, what telework looks like,” Peter Bonner, associate director of Human Resources Solutions at OPM, told the conference. “Sometimes that reshuffling happens when folks transfer because they see something more attractive at the agency next door.”

Since the pandemic, employee surveys and research have found that telework and remote work can be a bargaining chip for hiring managers. For an administration that has expanded talent initiatives focused on diverse applicants and skills-based training, maximizing workplace flexibility could be a strategy for President Joe Biden’s agency heads in making federal jobs accessible as pandemic health concerns linger.

How will manager-employee relationship change?

OPM said considering employee needs and wants surrounding telework is good practice as a retention device and a “potential positive feature” in recruiting.

“The big opportunity for government is that [flexible work] opens up a huge aperture of people available to able to cover specific jobs,” Moffett said. What the government may lack in competitive wages, it could make up for in offering an exemplary hybrid work environment, he said.

Chris Bennethum, who works in GSA’s Office of Assisted Acquisition Services within the Federal Acquisition Service, said at the PSC conference that as federal agencies compete for talent, they also compete for culture. In his part of the GSA, Bennethum said attrition rates rose in the last 18 months.

“People are making choices that reflect their priorities in life,” he said at the conference.

Moffett and others said work flexibility is emblematic of the transformed workplace culture and manager-employee relationship. He said that could create possibilities for contracting and investing in small, diverse businesses headquartered outside of the Capitol area that have solutions for meeting the government’s work-from-home technology needs.

Federal agencies were on track to spend 20% more on contracts for cloud computing services, like servers, storage, databases and networking, in fiscal 2021 than 2020, according to a Bloomberg Government analysis.

”The Covid-19 pandemic accelerated the trend, forcing agencies to make new investments in cloud-based infrastructure and collaboration tools to support a remote federal workforce,” the analysis said.

“The government has no choice but to invest,” Moffett said.

Molly Weisner is a reporter for Federal Times where she covers industry issues pertaining to the government workforce. She’s made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a producer and worked on The New York Times’s print desk as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism and French at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.