In Structure We Trust: Building the Hybrid Federal Workplace

June 10, 2021

The days of federal agencies operating under a policy of maximum teleworking appear numbered. The Office of Personnel Management has begun scaling back COVID-19 safety protocols, recently loosening facemask requirements for fully vaccinated federal employees returning to the workplace. Full-capacity, onsite operations are on the horizon. What constitutes “full capacity,” however, will vary among agencies, as dictated by mission requirements, local safety regulations, and, now, employee preferences.

Teleworking has emerged as crucial to attracting and retaining talent, making it likely to remain part of federal workplaces after the pandemic. But agency leaders must consider more than a continuation of the COVID-19 virtual environment, which was an adaptation, not a strategic transformation. Sustaining a full-time distributed workforce—with some employees working part- or full-time remotely and not necessarily near an office building—presents new challenges, many centered around questions of equity:

  • Equitable performance measurement: Will employees working virtually be recognized and appreciated as much as onsite employees in evaluations and promotions?
  • Equitable workplace environment: Will virtual employees engender resentment from onsite colleagues who perceive their own circumstances less flexible?       
  • Equitable decision-making and resourcing: Will stipends for workers furnishing a home office be adjusted based on the cost of living where the employee resides? Will full-time, onsite employees receive a comparable benefit for commuting costs?

There are no definitive solutions to these questions; leaders must examine the tradeoffs in affording some or all employees the flexibility of telework and determine what’s right for their organization. But there are generally accepted best practices to strive toward. LMI supported federal agencies in planning and implementing a hybrid workforce model years before the pandemic. We fostered collaboration and addressed the multitude of effects on organizational culture, leadership, and resources. This work underscored the importance of structure and trust to an effective and equitable distributed workforce.

Establish Workplace Norms and Expectations

Workplace norms and expectations that may be self-evident in an onsite environment are harder to convey to a dispersed workforce. Employees should understand these norms and expectations whether they work from home, a remote location, or headquarters as well as what’s expected of their colleagues whose setup differs. Agency leaders play a crucial role in establishing, communicating, and nurturing this code of conduct at the enterprise level. Clear agency-level expectations offer a framework for mid-level managers and supervisors implementing rules relevant to their teams’ environment and responsibilities.

LMI helped a leading federal workplace devise norms and expectations for a monthlong, virtual workforce pilot. Rules included being present at work (e.g., being on screen for meetings and engaged in supporting team priorities), being available throughout a core block of time mid-workday, and assuming good intent if someone did not respond immediately. Conveying these expectations upfront mitigated the perception among onsite employees that they would carry more of the workload than their virtual counterparts. The expectations also furnished a clear baseline for evaluating employee performance, predicated on productivity rather than time on the clock.

Build Trust Through Structure

On-site operations are structured inherently by the physical space employees occupy, where routines—lunch breaks in the cafeteria, conversations in the hallway—create opportunities for colleagues and leaders to build rapport and, eventually, trust. In a hybrid model, those interactions don’t come as naturally. Workplace norms and expectations create the structures and routines in which a culture of trust can flourish. If onsite employees distrust virtual colleagues, remote colleagues don’t trust each other, or team members don’t feel treated fairly by leaders, performance suffers and new employees and incoming team members can’t thrive. Conversely, researcher Paul Zak observed in Harvard Business Review, “employees in high-trust organizations are more productive, have more energy at work, collaborate better with their colleagues, and stay with their employers longer than people working at low-trust companies.”

Use Data to Understand Implications

Despite some employees’ enthusiasm about their teleworking prospects, leaders are understandably cautious. Introducing a post-COVID hybrid workforce model prematurely could create friction that erodes a strong culture over time. In performing their due diligence, leaders can turn to a wealth of data about their own operations to understand how to scale a hybrid workforce equitably. Organizational maturity assessments like LMI’s help leaders objectively consider the long-term implications to supervisor training, recruiting, and the organization’s physical footprint, among other concerns. So long as structure and trust are its foundation, a hybrid workplace can make federal agencies more competitive for talent and more rewarding for their employees without diminishing effectiveness.

Our Approach

In an effective hybrid workforce model, employees feel connected to their organization wherever they are. Mature capabilities like culture, technology, and security are essential to developing that connectivity. LMI’s data-driven approach helps leaders make evidence-based decisions about the composition of their future workforce and organizational maturity. We use quantitative and qualitative data-gathering methods, including our proprietary workforce planning tool, OrgIQ®, to understand an agency’s policies, practices, and capabilities related to a virtual workforce. We evaluate this data against best practices from the public and private sectors.

Measuring maturity at the practice and capability levels as well as the overall organization, the framework scales to support leaders at the point of need. This approach gives leaders the flexibility to choose distinct maturity levels for each practice based on the organization’s mission and priorities. LMI’s comprehensive services—including asset management, data analytics, internal communications, and human-centered design—contribute to the strategic planning, implementation, and continuous evaluation of maturation activities.

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