Maintaining a Sense of Connectedness

Federal Agencies Get a Handle on Hybrid Work

Remote Work

Employees really like working remotely.

The past two-plus years of the coronavirus pandemic has driven that point home again and again. Survey after survey show that most workers not only adapted well to the sudden shift toward telework, but, going forward, many want to continue working remotely at least part of the time.

Naturally, employees like the flexibility and autonomy that remote work offers. For example, a Pew Research Center poll found 64% of those working from home at least some of the time (but rarely or never did before the pandemic) indicating that it’s easier now for them to balance work with their personal life. Another 44% said that working from home has made it easier for them to get their work done and meet deadlines. Only 10% suggested that working remotely has made doing so more difficult.

That’s not to say that telework doesn’t present certain challenges. The same Pew survey, for instance, saw 60% of respondents saying the move toward more remote work has left them feeling less connected to their co-workers now than before the pandemic.

Indeed, the need for in-person interaction and collaboration has led employers to begin bringing workers back to the office in some capacity, with many adopting a hybrid approach that allows employees to work remotely for part of the work, while requiring them to be onsite other days.

A recent Federal News Network survey finds some federal employees questioning the need to be in the office at all, even if it’s for just one day out of the week.

The poll of more than 1,100 federal workers asked respondents about their agencies’ return-to-office plans (more than 70% of respondents work in civilian agencies, with 18% in the defense department and the rest working either in the intelligence community or for a federal contractor).

According to the survey, about 60% of federal employees currently work in a hybrid environment, 33% work entirely remotely and the rest said they work exclusively in person. Those who work in a hybrid environment are typically teleworking four days per week and are going into the office one day a week.

Overall, most federal employees (more than 60%) expressed satisfaction with their current work situation. Others, however, said the requirement of working in the office at least once a week “was a pain point,” according to a statement summarizing the findings.

“We’ve been fully remote for over two years,” wrote one respondent. “The hybrid is a very difficult adjustment. The mission has been accomplished with no interruptions, so why the requirement to be in the office?”

Some workers “said they didn’t understand the rationale behind coming to the office just one day per week, and that they would prefer to telework every day. And some who were unsatisfied with their work situation said they would have preferred more telework flexibility,” according to Federal News Network.

“All of my work can be done remotely,” another respondent wrote. “There is no need to come to the office to work. My supervisor just likes to have a presence in the office building.”

The Challenge to Stay Connected

Still, even with a majority of respondents preferring to work only at home, some federal employees struggle with the aforementioned lack of face-to-face communication with colleagues.

“Employers hide behind screens,” one federal worker lamented. “There is not any way to experience facial expressions [or] non-verbal body language. Being in the office allows for quicker building of work relationships and provides support for camaraderie and better communication.”

Indeed, there are “significant adjustment issues to work out, even still,” one survey participant noted. “Lots of informal communication mechanisms that helped with office culture and work going more smoothly do not exist in a hybrid or remote environment yet.”

Regardless of how federal employees feel about hybrid work, the consensus is clear: It’s here to stay.

“At this point, more than half of our folks are teleworking or are remote. The office doesn’t look like it used to and it won’t,” one federal employee acknowledged. “We have to embrace something different, even if we don’t know what it looks like or how it will work.”

The need to figure out how to engage and connect with workers in different physical locations will remain, too. David Ulrich, partner at The RBL Group, a Provo, Utah-based consulting and development firm, offers some guidance for organizations trying to find the right balance between remote and in-person work, and maintaining a sense of connectedness among employees.

First, he encourages employers to make sure workers understand they are appreciated.

“Thank [them] for the good work [they] do,” said Ulrich, who is also the Rensis Likert professor at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business.

Express that the organization is committed to helping employees meet their personal and professional goals while helping the agency achieve its goals as well, he added.

“Work can be done in lots of places and in lots of ways,” Ulrich said. The organization must make clear to workers that “we want to personalize where and how you work, depending on the nature of your job and your personal choice.”

The agency and its employees also should agree that “wherever and however [employees] work, [employees’] work contributes value to today and tomorrow’s customers,” he said. “So, think about what you do that encourages customers to do business with us.”

Ultimately, Ulrich stresses the importance of communicating with employees to help reach an arrangement that, ideally, suits their personal and professional needs while still forwarding the interests of the organization.

“Work with us to find the best place for you to work, but recognize that your work has to continue to contribute value,” he said. “This may mean doing things you don’t fully enjoy at times. Work sometimes requires sacrifice, but we hope you find meaning from the work you are doing.”

Subscribe to the HR Bulletin