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If We’re Going ‘Back to the Office’ at Least Do It Right!

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Patrick S. Malone
June 11, 2023

Here we go again. It all started with the Covid pandemic which changed the way that the public service workforce accomplished their important mission—transitioning in an incredibly short amount of time from in-person to virtual, and in some cases hybrid. In cities, counties and states across the country, government workers found new and innovative ways to meet the needs of their communities. And while some services remained in person due to the nature of the work, the public service workforce overwhelmingly shifted into a new normal.   

Government agencies across the board did very well during this tumultuous time. Stories abound from Hennepin County, Minnesota to Richmond, Virginia; Bangor, Maine to Long Beach California. Public servants demonstrated agility, speed, innovation and flexibility. The federal government answered the call as well. While some organizations such as U.S. Patent and Trademark already had a long history of virtual work, other agencies quickly joined in and moved federal employees out of dimly lit buildings and into their homes. 

And it worked. Cisco’s 2022 study “Hybrid Work in Government” revealed that 92 percent of decision-makers at all levels of government were comfortable with remote work for their employees. The benefits of this new normal included less burnout, less turnover, better work life balance and productivity increases ranging from 6-9 percent.  And employees are happier. In a study examining workforce happiness, researchers found: remote work increased employee happiness by as much as 20 percent; that Millennials were at their happiest when working remotely; and importantly, returning to the office reduced employee happiness (we’ll come back to this!).

Yet, despite the proven success of virtual work, along with the data showing that employees prefer remote options, there is a growing chorus of ‘we have to get them back in the office……’ Pundits ranging from talk show hosts with no background in organizational science to ‘I know better’ bosses around the country are seemingly waking up after over four years of success to proclaim that we have to get people back in the office. Fifty-five minutes to and from the office every day? So, what?  Better quality of life? Get over it. A proven track record of performance over four years? I’m sorry, were you talking? 

So where is this coming from? After an amazing adjustment to a workforce that is more agile, more productive and better for the environment, why are we now making the point that we must get people back in the office? It likely comes from leaders who resisted the transition to virtual in the first place. Some leaders struggled with this transition from day one with unfounded claims of workers lounging around in pink fuzzy slippers. Managers in their moments of blatant honesty have cited a lack of comfort with leading a virtual workforce and a dearth of trust in believing that the remote worker is as productive as their cubicle-bound colleague.

To be fair, there ARE huge benefits to in-person interaction and it is a must for most, if not all, of our government organizations. Bringing remote workers together on a regular basis builds camaraderie, trust and teamwork. It allows for the social fabric to be strengthened among workers with a like mission. The problem begins when we make the proclamation that everyone must come into the office just for the sake of being in the office. This is illogical. Across the country and throughout government organizations big and small, public servants are trudging into the office to work alone because it is their mandatory day in the office. The problem is, it’s not anyone else’s mandatory day in the office. The result? They are actually doing remote work from the office!

As noted above, the need to bring our virtual workers together in person is valid for all the reasons noted. However, let’s do it the right way. First, examine what makes sense in terms of the mission of the organization. If two days of in-person work per pay period is required, fine. If it’s three days, no problem. But only if it is mandatory for the mission, not desired by an overly controlling manager.  Second, by all means, we must be strategic about the way that we reconvene our workforce. If we’re serious about the benefits of in-person dynamics, bring in entire offices or divisions, or departments on the same day.  This will facilitate discussions, team building, strategic planning and personal connections.

Let’s stop blaming virtual work for our leadership fears. Requiring a random day or two in the office per pay period does us no good.  And let us not wipe our brow and think that we can go back to a 1957 style work design when we are approaching four years of data that tell us otherwise. Public agencies have not only excelled in their missions, but they’ve also created a welcoming pipeline for a more diverse workforce including younger generations. Why not embrace the beauty that remote work and hybrid combinations offer our exhausted public servants? 

Author: Patrick S. Malone is the Director, Key Executive Leadership Programs at American University.  He is a frequent guest lecturer and author on leadership and organizational dynamics in the public service.  His co-authored book, “Leading with Love and Laughter – A Practical Guide to Letting Go and Getting Real” (Berrett-Koehler Publishing) was released in Spring 2021.  His new book, “Leading in the Small Moments” is targeted for release in Spring 2024.

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