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The New Working Era

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

By Willie Lee Patterson III
December 5, 2022

My dissertation topic in 2011 was the “Effect of Organizational culture on telework implementation in the federal government”. Here we are eleven years later after the COVID pandemic forced telework in the federal government and many industries to continue production one hundred percent. Now, we are re-evaluating telework effectiveness. Nothing beats empirical data with the federal government; proof that teleworking does not impede production.

As a matter-of-fact Kristen Senz (Senz), in her article published in the Harvard Business Review August 4, 2020, cites a “new survey suggests that at least 16 percent of employees will remain at-home workers long after COVID-19 recedes, as published by researchers Christopher Stanton, Zoe Cullen, and Michael Luca.” The era of commuting to a building daily to work in order to be deemed effective and productive is headed to an end. Technology continues to leverage production capabilities. I experienced teaching my first graduate course at the University of South Alabama (USA) completely asynchronous with the only glitch being my lack of mastery of the technology utilized by USA.

Some of my research findings from my dissertation that challenged leaders continue to resonate with senior leadership: effective communication, limited face-to-face interaction and the notion that if “I don’t see you, how will I measure your production?” During my research, I often asked senior leaders if they visited employees that occupied cubicle space that worked five days per week, at some point during their forty hours to ensure they were productive. I received a resounding “no”, but they were convinced presence in the office implied production.

Empirical data that continues to validate certain industries is ideally situated for telework, mostly white-collar positions. Senz research saw the largest shift to remote work in Educational Services (81%), Finance and Insurance (79%) and Scientific and Technical services (75%). As with the ushering in of a new era, there will be barriers to overcome for leadership and their employees.

I found that the most challenging issues with telework currently are accountability and connectivity of employees on a consistent basis. We initially required employees to send a daily email when they started the workday, then we shifted to log-in to our “TEAMS” technology which shows you are in the system. At one point we required a daily submission of what each employee produced. The level of communication had to increase to ensure staff remained connected. We initiated a daily huddle for thirty minutes and each employee briefed on projects and discussed concerns. If there is nothing significant to discuss, we move quickly through the huddle. Because our team’s production relies on support from our finance section, we include the finance staff in our daily huddle.

Some of our Divisions are experiencing morale issues due to some employees being offered total remote employment as a means of retention because of another district making a job offer to work full-time remotely. The Army Corps of Engineers’ roll out of telework and remote opportunities are not consistently implemented nationwide with thirty-six autonomous districts. Some districts can recruit top talent from other districts by offering remote employment, which simply means you work from home daily. To retain a trained and solid employee, a supervisor converts that person’s position to remote while the co-worker with the same duties who did not seek employment with another district is only allowed to work in a hybrid setting. The impact is lower employee morale. Senior leaders are grappling with this challenge. The ideal end state will be uniform telework and remote policies nation-wide with the Army Corps of Engineers.

The new era does lend itself to other barriers we must overcome. For example, the concern with promotions when you work in a remote environment while your supervisor and some of your colleagues are traditional office employees. “Will I be passed over because I don’t have the face time with leadership” is a concern often expressed. How we communicate with staff is also a barrier. We must utilize technology to ensure staff at home are present in staff meetings, team meetings, and project discussions via ZOOM, TEAMS and other technology.

We will always have barriers to change. The world is constantly evolving and becoming more technologically advanced and its impact on the worksite is a natural evolution. It just happened to occur at a faster pace due to COVID. This is the new era, and I personally don’t see a retreat to the traditional work site or even with higher education. At best, we will function in a hybrid work and educational environment in our new era.

Author: Willie L. Patterson III is a part-time Professor with the University of South Alabama. He can be reached at [email protected] Twitter: @Patterson1963

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