One of the biggest legacies of the COVID-19 pandemic is how it fundamentally changed the way government personnel work.
A recent Office of Personnel Management report found that before the pandemic, only three percent of federal employees teleworked daily. That number grew to 59 percent during the peak of the pandemic. Now, nearly two years after this overnight shift to remote work, government agencies are still adapting and overcoming challenges to optimize productivity and efficiency across geographically dispersed teams.
In response, in June 2021, the Biden administration released a memo providing guidance on how federal agencies should plan for post-reentry work environments. The memo encourages agencies to train “managers on fair and equitable performance management” to ensure that remote and in-person workers are not treated differently than others. Inequalities such as “proximity bias” occur when on-premises employees receive certain advantages over remote employees (or vice versa) in work interactions.
This can take the form of being able to communicate more easily in meetings, having increased access to key project materials or tools, or simply enjoying the casual relationship-building interactions that take place when people are together in person.
These inequalities are compounded by other factors that prevent geographically dispersed teams from getting on the same page. With strategic orientation and ideation being completed across different applications and physical spaces, it’s hard to create one common operating picture to keep mission teams aligned. Synchronous communications tools such as video conferencing and messaging are necessary, but limiting. Ideas and information are lost if they aren’t captured during meetings or they get quickly buried within chat threads. The cumulative effect is a lack of shared visibility and persistent workflow coordination that impedes decision-making.
Picture a meeting of 12 people, with six attendees in a conference room and six others joining virtually from remote locations. When the meeting leader is presenting, in-person attendees may have advantages in terms of grabbing the leader’s attention, easily chiming in with thoughts and questions, or focusing attention on documents that exist in the room. Dispersed personnel have more barriers to overcome in order to have a voice, which impedes ideation, efficiency, and alignment. The virtual folks are in the meeting for a reason– because they have a role to play in driving mission outcomes– and these barriers have to be overcome in order for hybrid teams to optimize productivity and performance.
The efficiency of meetings can also improve employee morale. A study from the University of North Carolina found that the effectiveness of meetings correlates with employees’ general satisfaction or dissatisfaction with their jobs. A happy employee is one who feels constantly valued and seen, which can be challenging in a remote setting. This is especially important for introverted employees, who may already feel drowned out by the voices of more extroverted employees. Making an effort to ensure employees are getting the visibility and support they need will improve long-term employee retention and hiring for the organization. To supplement the environment a leader creates, it is crucial for teams to have access to secure tools that allow members to better equally ideate and collaborate.
Meetings should be co-working sessions – not a presenter reading off static slides. Rather, focus the meeting on making decisions, sharing knowledge, and getting work done. To accomplish this, you can use a digital workspace to distribute your meeting materials prior to the meeting, offering plenty of time for digestion and contribution. For certain meetings, meeting leaders can even urge every attendee to arrive ready to share a new idea or suggestion. This indicates to every attendee that they will be an active participant and sets the table for a productive meeting.
To ensure every participant makes their presence known, meeting leaders should look to utilize tools that offer opportunities for everyone to chime in. This can include using an online whiteboard to assign ownership to certain parts of the meeting’s agenda, taking turns sharing individual updates, and even something as simple as ice breakers to begin the meeting. With varying personality types and levels of comfort, it is important to understand that certain employees may require being proactively engaged within the digital workspace.
Encourage all employees, not just those remote, to use secure and agile online tools to communicate on work projects and to promote friendly camaraderie. It is easy for in-person employees to receive more face time with leaders during meetings, and online tools can help remote employees achieve the same impact. Video conferencing, one of the most used tools during the pandemic, is useful in providing face time, but must be utilized wisely. They have collaborative limitations that can produce video burnout among employees. Instead of one-way listening sessions, dispersed teams should seek tools that allow for conversation and simultaneous usage of online workspaces that drive real-time interaction and full integration of every aspect of the team’s workflow.
It is clear that working wherever and whenever you can is the “new normal,” but extending the experience of being in the same room requires the right tools. As government leaders, it is your choice and responsibility to give permanence to your team’s best ideas and reach mission outcomes by implementing a digital workspace that brings agility to complex processes. Striving towards visual, equitable meetings and creating a common operating picture to create shared understanding is the first stepping stone in a successful dispersed work environment.
John Greenstein is vice president of global management at Bluescape