The federal workforce has been in a near constant state of transition since the pandemic.

From full offices pre-pandemic to the remote operating status at its height, the government now seems to be tenuously settled in a sort of hybrid environment.

“If you think about what’s happening right now, the way that people work is fundamentally starting to change since COVID,” Jeetu Patel, executive vice president and general manager of security and collaboration at Cisco, told reporters during an IT and cybersecurity roundtable on April 11.

There’s a fourth stage on the horizon, or perhaps workforces are already in it: the fraught return-to-work stage. Last week, the White House said it expects agencies to “substantially increase meaningful in-person work at federal offices ... while still using flexible operational policies as an important tool in talent recruitment and retention.”

As of federal survey data from October, only 1 in 3 federal employees were fully back in office. Unions and federal employees are vehemently rebuking Congress and managers’ efforts to reverse telework agreements while lawmakers are blaming that very system for mass inefficiencies in public service benefit programs, like Social Security and retirement processing.

Still, federal government employees have been trickling back to offices, and at this point, telework agreements seem to be decided on a case-by-case basis, according to the Office of Personnel Management’s 2022 Federal Employee Viewpoint survey published Oct. 20.

In any event, Patel said one thing is evident: “mandates aren’t working.”

“When you tell people ‘come back in for these many days,’ you actually lose some of the best talent,” he said. “And in fact ... one of the things we think about is could you actually create the workplace as more of a magnet, where people want to come in for certain purposes, rather than just having a mandate?”

So, what does that look like? For starters, don’t penalize the introverts, Patel said.

That means modern workspaces have to ensure every worker feels a part of the conversation, whether they’re in the office or calling in from home. It also means that one space must accommodate different kinds of videoconferencing tools depending on the preference of the team.

Cutting the cable

“This market is evolving very much like how the video entertainment market evolved,” Patel said. “You might have a subscription to Netflix, but you also have a subscription to Hulu. And you also have a subscription to Amazon Prime, and you might watch any one of those to go out and get content. And then every once in a while, you’ll also look at Apple TV.”

An employee bouncing from calls on Zoom to Microsoft Teams to Google Meet to Cisco Webex needs technology that can interface seamlessly with all of them, he and other experts said. Government technology is notorious for being slow and cumbersome, with agency officials saying that they had challenges with equipment shortages, lack of training and limited network capacity at the onset of the pandemic, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

To put some of these ideas in practice, the General Services Administration has a pilot project in place that mirrors a commercial co-working space (think WeWork) just for federal employees. At GSA headquarters in Washington D.C., there is a 25,000-square-foot floor divided into “suites” designed by six different technology and office-furniture companies.

“People don’t want to leave their home office, and if they do, it’s got to feel like a destination,” said Jennifer Westveer, federal business development manager for Allsteel, one of the GSA vendors. “It can’t just be another office to walk into.”

To make the commute to F Street worthwhile, the lab integrates technology that gives visitors a digital map that tells them if rooms are available, what the temperature is in a certain room and even what the noise level is through sensors.

GSA began welcoming federal employees to the space on Feb. 6. Since then, 200 to 300 people per week are touring and receiving demos of the space, said Scott Morin, federal account manager of GSA at Cisco, one of the largest suppliers of networking and cybersecurity services to government.

Bailment agreements

The workspace is also emblematic of innovation for contractors who want to get in on the evolving demands of today’s workforce. Vendors partnering on the lab are in bailment agreements, which is like a temporary rental contract of the equipment and services at no cost to GSA.

Ann Shieder, national sales manager for government at Allsteel, said this is a unique contracting relationship that allows for industry be creative in how it responds to a request for proposal. Companies interested in participating in bailment agreements must know that the return on investment may not be an immediate award of another project, but it can be a foot in the door.

“It’s understanding the cost, because it is a cost to the manufacturer,” she said. “But it is something that can be a long-term goal, and if your organization is selling to the federal government, you really need to be prepared for building a relationship. And relationships don’t happen immediately.”

Zamone Perez contributed reporting.

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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