The longer the coronavirus pandemic lasts, the further in the rear-view mirror fades the pre-March 2020 version of work-life as many of us knew it – and the less likely it is that workforces spanning both the government and private sectors will ever fully get back to what was normal before the public health crisis.

At the same time, however, two unstoppable forces are rushing in to fill the vacuum and shape the next chapters of normal for the workforce: necessity, and technology. Both are feeding one of the most prized of human traits – adaptability, and the willingness to use new tools and new approaches to change things for the better.

A blizzard of factors are in play right now that are shaping workforce transformation and innovation, and taking us all further away from work-life as we knew it. Here are a few factors to pay attention to – both on the government policy side and in tech innovation developments – that are shaping up to be among the most important.

First: Are we Ever Really Going Back to the Office?

The short answer for many is probably not, at least in a strictly traditional sense. The much longer answer is when we do go back to the office, things will be very different than early 2020, and work life going forward is much more likely to revolve around the requirements, talents, and circumstances of employees, rather than an imperative to fill up cubicle farms in Federal office buildings in the greater Washington, D.C. area.

For some Federal employees – think agency leadership and higher-level managers, physical plant workers, law enforcement, security operations personnel – the pandemic mostly has not been a work-from-home event. Rather, it’s been work as usual in traditional locations, but amid greatly thinned-out ranks of the onsite workforce.

For the majority of Federal employees – about 60 percent worked full-time from home during the pandemic, with that total cracking 80 percent or higher at many Federal agencies – the future of work location continues to hang in the balance of evolving government policy that will be greatly influenced by the future track of the coronavirus and the public health crisis it has caused.

The Biden administration, via the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), has spent months leading Federal agencies through evaluations of return-to-work policies, but has yet to pull the trigger on a widespread return.

As recently as several weeks ago, it appeared that rising vaccination rates and plans to make vaccinations and/or frequent testing mandatory for Federal employees and government contractors would pave the way for more office returns. But with the U.S. still climbing into yet another infection spike courtesy of the virus’s delta variant – and ample evidence of milder infections even among fully vaccinated people – it’s a safe bet that the path of the coronavirus will be the biggest influence on the future timing of OPM policy changes.

Second: Remote Work’s Success Speaks Loudly

Setting aside factors that led to – and may yet sustain – the great Federal government experiment with widescale telework, one overriding factor is going to be very hard to ignore in the next round of work-location policy decisions. That factor is consensus agreement on the success of the experiment to date.

From the earliest days of scrambling for VPN capacity through the initial months of adding infrastructure to sustain a much higher degree of distributed services, Federal government agencies have made the ability for most employees to work remotely something that is now largely taken for granted.

Perhaps most importantly as an input to future workforce policy decisions, the era of remote work has been marked by the efficient delivery of services to citizens, and according to accounts by many agency managers, led to higher workforce productivity and digital literacy.

For example, a study conducted by the American Federation of Government Employees reports that 79 percent of Federal employees believe they were more productive while teleworking. MeriTalk’s news coverage of Federal civilian and military tech leaders bears out similar sentiments. The bottom line: if a distributed workforce is a more effective one, then there’s less reason to look to the past.

Third: Technology Investment Trend

Along with the perceived success of remote work by productivity measures, the other big force that will drive future government workplace policy is technology investment trends.

Billions of dollars of technology investments have already been made to sustain and improve government function in the remote-work era, and there are billions more on tap to make further improvements in that capability.

At some point – maybe it’s here already – the tech capabilities bought and paid for to serve a distributed workforce means there’s one less big reason to keep workforces more centralized. The fact that those investments also lean heavily toward IT modernization – think cloud adoption and zero trust architectures – means that the work-from-anywhere capabilities they create will be hard to put back on the shelf.

“The Federal government has proven to itself the art of the possible with remote work technology,” said Steve Nguyen, Vice President and General Manager, US Public Sector at Citrix.

“Federal agencies already were preparing for the ‘Future of Work’ prior to the pandemic, to keep pace with increased talent demands and evolving technology,” he said. “What we’ve all learned from this crisis is that planning for future emergencies should also account for disruptions on employee workload, needs, and productivity and the right technological solutions to support continuity of work.”

“In today’s current environment, the continued uncertainty around the pandemic along with the probability of increased natural disasters, unplanned emergencies, and other disruptions to mission make it necessary to continue to focus on non-location-based continuity of government operations,” Nguyen said. “So as agencies think long-term about reentry and post-reentry, there is an immediate and strategic imperative to reimagine both workplace policies and processes to effectively serve the American people, from any location.”

Fourth: Helping the IT Workforce Rebuild

Along with the private sector, the Federal government is facing fierce competition to fill IT and cybersecurity positions. The government offers a great pitch on mission and service, but often lags behind in pay and perceived “swagger” compared to many private sector employers.

Troublesome for the government in the longer term is the current skewing of its IT workforce to the older end of the spectrum. According to budget documents published in 2020, 14 percent of the Federal IT workforce was over the age of 60, while just 2.7 percent were under the age of 30.

The government remains in the middle of a long IT workforce rebuild and refresh process, and one way or another needs to succeed in that effort. One important selling point for prospective new employees is the ability to work from anywhere depending on the position. Rather than waiting for OPM guidance on general return-to-office policies, some Federal agencies are wasting no time reworking IT job pitches to reach candidates who can work from anywhere.

Guy Cavallo, who became OPM’s CIO earlier this year, said in July that he’s open to hiring tech employees no matter their location around the country. “We are hiring remote everywhere,” he said, “unless it’s a job where I physically need somebody at that location.”  With the advent of cloud services, he added, “I don’t need somebody sitting next to servers.”

“By untethering Federal work from specific geographic locations or brick-and-mortar buildings and distributing work nationwide, agencies will be better positioned to recruit from a larger and more diverse talent pool – especially as it relates to the challenges of finding tech talent who often have the luxury of greater pay and flexibility in work location,” Nguyen said. 

Fifth: Remote Training Becomes Paramount

As the larger trend toward more remote work for Federal employees continues to grow, then so does the need to fill the gap left by in-person job training and instruction that often was the province of fixed office spaces and in-person, supervisor-employee interactions.

“As the workforce shifts to a more remote or hybrid model, leaders must use new tools and tactics to ensure that their teams have the requisite skills to complete projects and get return on their massive technology investments,” said Gary Eimerman, General Manager of Skills at Pluralsight, which provides IT training for government leaders and their staffs.

“The most savvy leaders work hand in hand with a skill development partner that can deliver a complete training solution including the combination of on demand video training, live virtual or in-classroom training sessions, and hands-on learning opportunities that suit the specific needs of the organization,” he said.

For IT-related training – including reskilling and upskilling current employee – the need becomes even more important.

“One important factor to consider when implementing an upskilling or reskilling strategy is that hands-on learning opportunities carry huge importance in helping teams improve skills in the most effective way possible,” Eimerman said. “When combined with in-depth on-demand video courses or even instructor-led training, hands-on learning in labs and virtual sandbox environments can help workers retain and grow the skills they need to do the job.”

“Our most successful government customers implement an upskilling solution that combines all three,” Eimerman said. “The outcomes in terms of faster project implementation, reduced time to market for product delivery, and the ability to train and retain highly skilled technical workers are often astounding.”

Finally: The Bottom Line

Much remains to be determined in the Federal government’s thinking about return-to-work policies, their timing, and their extent. The key immediate driver of policy change will undoubtedly be workforce health and safety concerns driven by developments with the coronavirus.

Beyond that catalyst, however, technology enabling work-from-anywhere flexibility for the Federal workforce has more than proved its worth – and pointed to the future of the larger Federal technology investment trends that encompass broader modernization goals.

And the government’s most important asset – its people – have shown that the new approach not only works, but can improve the government’s performance. Heading toward two years of the ongoing experiment in distributed work, the evidence is compelling that the next normal is already here.

For more on this topic, register for MeriTalk’s “Agency Anywhere and Everywhere: The Evolving Federal Workforce Model” webinar on September 30.

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John Curran
John Curran
John Curran is MeriTalk's Managing Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.