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Traditional Meets Virtual. The New Normal is Now.

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

By Patrick S. Malone
August 3, 2021

On June 6, 2019, more than six months before COVID-19 hit the shores of the United States, I wrote in this column about the need to rethink the value of telework, “Want Better Mission Accomplishment? Embrace Telecommuting!” In that piece I extolled the virtues of telework and made the argument that it was time for us to rethink the value of a virtual approach. A few months later, the deadliest pandemic in our lifetime arrived and we had no choice but to transition into a virtual world. And we did.

Our experience with virtual work has proven that in many cases, it is a far superior alternative to the traditional workplace setting. Operational and energy costs are reduced significantly. The physical footprint of the office is considerably diminished, saving money on pricey office leases. Our environment and quality of life improved as team members avoided hours of commuting to and from their workplace. One 2019 study published in The Journal of Business and Psychology noted that employees achieved increased levels of performance when working from home as opposed to the company office. Finally, employees were happier, resulting in fewer sick days and less turnover.

Hence the challenges that our leaders face. For much of the last 18 months, organizations have succeeded in transitioning to a virtual environment and still meeting their organizational mission. As workers return to more traditional settings, some are pushing back on their supervisors. They are arguing that if they were able to accomplish their jobs in a virtual environment, it is not necessary to force them back into a physical workspace. Some are going as far as to request special accommodations for being able to work from home permanently.

The fact is not every job is suitable for a virtual staff. Consider firefighters or police officers. Also, individuals who work on the front lines of organizations interacting in person with visitors would be hard-pressed to convert their positions to a telework format. Childcare workers and custodians would not be professions that we would consider suitable for telework. And finally, even in the most progressive workplace, some face-to-face interaction is important for teams to grow and bond, so all virtual all the time may not be the best solution either.

So how do managers and supervisors best prepare for the future that is now? What strategies must be employed in order allow telework to continue where it makes sense and bring our teams back to the office safely when needed?

Remember not everyone had the same COVID-19 experience. The past 18 months have been incredibly difficult at a very personal level. Some lost friends and family. Others struggled with fear and uncertainty either professionally or from a health perspective. No two lives were touched in the exact same way by this pandemic. Make time in the workplace for empathy and kindness as we forge our way into the new normal.

Check your bias at the door. Is your drive to transition people back into a traditional setting based on your need for oversight or control? Or worse, trust? If this is what is fueling your concerns, you have bigger problems than the physical location of your workforce. Be honest with yourself so that you can objectively assess the appropriate mixture of virtual and traditional for your teams. Anything else is self-serving.

Match the needs of the job to the modality. Now is the time for a serious look at personnel descriptions across organizations. How much interaction with staff does the position actually require? What would be the proper balance of in-person versus virtual interaction with other members of the organization or the citizens you serve? And remember, it is not an all-or-nothing dilemma. Adopting a hybrid approach may be the best for most positions.

The bottom line is the bottom line. Even though success in public service is often defined as an issue of mission accomplishment, there are still great concerns with efficiency and spending taxpayer money. What is the business argument for having a person in a traditional setting versus virtual? Where do we save money? Where do we perform better? Make the business case and make it objective and measurable.

Listen to your workforce. Those that make up the public service have been incredibly versatile and innovative in the past many months. They know their jobs better than anyone else. They are the absolute best source of information for determining how to structure virtual versus traditional environments in your agency. Meet with them and listen.

Creating something new is never easy. Our so-called new normal is upon us now and it will require all of our collective thinking capacity to make it work for our citizens and our organizations. We still face significant challenges with the variants of this virus so social distancing requirements must remain in place, as must be the consideration for the more vulnerable among us. The challenges for supervisors are real. Welcome to the new normal.

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 new 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.

[email protected]
Twitter: @DrPatrickMalone

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