Federal and private sector leaders discussed how the coronavirus pandemic has changed traditional workplace expectations, and how agencies can maintain team culture and continue upskilling their employees, during a September 30 MeriTalk webinar.

Federal agencies have spent more than 18 months learning how to work in a distance or hybrid work environment. During that time, agencies have had to learn how to onboard new employees, continue professional training, maintain agency culture, and ensure data security in a totally new work environment.

During the webinar, Clifton G. Douglas Jr., assistant director of the Strategic Issues Team at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Jose M. Arvelo, senior director of Federal Engineering at Citrix Systems, Tony Holmes, practice lead for Solutions Architects for Public Sector at Pluralsight, and Erin Howe, vice president of Global Strategy and Operations at Keeper Security, shared their insights and lessons learned over the last 18 months.

Agencies Must Embrace Hybrid Work Environments

While the shift to telework may have been directly caused by the pandemic, the broader trend toward remote work is unlikely to cease even after the public health crisis is over. Rather, Holmes said that agencies need to embrace the new way of working. He said that agencies are being challenged to step out of their comfort zone, and need to view the new hybrid work environment as an opportunity to change and modernize.

Arvelo argued the hybrid environment helps agencies attract and retain top talent. He explained that the most qualified talent may not live in the Washington, D.C. area, and that a telework environment allows agencies to hire the best people, regardless of where they live. Agencies need to embrace offering that level of flexibility to their employees, because “it is a new expectation everyone has,” he added. Thus, organizations need to be focused on providing employees the tools they need to succeed regardless of where they are logging on.

When it comes to helping agencies succeed with telework, Clifton said they need to make sure they have hard data to support what they believe is working, and what they think isn’t working when it comes to telework. On top of seeking out hard data, agencies also need to make sure they have a point person leading the telework charge. He explained that the point person should be tasked with developing telework policies, providing guidance to employees, and ensuring agencies and employees have the technology they need for telework.

Workplace Culture is Essential

All of the panelists agreed that maintaining optimal workplace culture is critical for helping teams continue to meet an agency’s mission – and that telework can make it more difficult to maintain that desired culture.

The last 18 months have been “tumultuous,” explained Howe, who added that the pandemic has forced agencies to evolve on employee engagement. Key to keeping employees engaged is making sure they understand how the work they are doing goes back to the organization’s goals and mission – essentially making sure they know their work is important. Prior to the pandemic, Howe said, it was easy enough to stop by someone’s desk and have conversations with individual employees. But in a hybrid work environment, she said “managers need to be more diligent in having those conversations.”

In addition to keeping current employees engaged, Howe stressed that during the onboarding process managers need to make sure new employees “feel really connected” to the organization. They “need to make sure people have a strong day one, week one experience” by driving a high level of engagement and excitement, even when onboarding is virtual.

As some workers begin moving back to the office, Douglas said GAO is working with agencies to ensure that performance is being measured equally for both in-person and remote workers. On top of that, he said agencies need to make sure they understand how someone working remotely impacts someone working in the office, and vice versa. To that end, Douglas said GAO is currently working on a report to Congress – expected to be released in January 2022 – that will examine how agencies used telework before and after the pandemic, whether agencies have policies in place to facilitate telework, and how agencies responded to telework challenges.

Adaptable, Agile Training is Key

Panelists were also aligned on the importance of offering ongoing trainings to employees to not only adapt to the hybrid work environment, but also to help them adopt new technologies that will drive agency mission.

Holmes specifically dove into this topic, explaining that organizations must make sure they are giving employees needed trainings so they can “reach out and grab what they need.” He added that leaders need to understand where their teams are now and where they need to go. Understanding the destination is easy, he said, but understanding where a team is now is a much heavier lift.

To help teams get to their destination, training needs to be flexible and agile. Holmes argued that we need to meet employees where they are, and understand organizations give people much less time to learn than they have in the past. On top of that, he said the speed of technology is breakneck, meaning the half-life on technical skills is shrinking. To overcome those obstacles, leaders need to support adaptability and creative problem solving, as well as give people the tools they need to bridge learning gaps. “We need to make sure [employees] have the tools and leadership has the insights” they need, he said.

Changes to Data Security are Needed

Part of embracing and adapting to the hybrid work environment is making sure agencies are keeping data secure. Howe said collaboration across and between agencies is an essential part of embracing hybrid work. Key to that is baking in cybersecurity so that data and files can be shared without compromising credentials.

Before the pandemic, Arvelo explained, agency IT teams had far greater control over employee devices and networks. However, as employees grow increasingly mobile, the ability for agency IT teams to control everything decreases, and the risk of stolen data and devices increases.

In response, Arvelo said agencies need to work on abstracting agency data off of physical devices. He added that agencies need to make sure they don’t put themselves in a situation where they have a stolen device and are having to scramble to make sure everything is secure against data leaks.

To help keep agency information secure, Arvelo said agencies need to adopt secure digital workspaces. With a secure digital workspace, all data is completely independent of the physical device. By using a secure digital workspace, even if a device is lost or the network the device is on is compromised, data isn’t lost or compromised, he said.

Listen to the full conversation to learn more.

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk's Assistant Copy & Production Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.