Workplace flexibility as the new normal

Anne Weisberg is a director in talent at Deloitte Services LLP and the coauthor of “Mass Career Customization.” William D. Eggers is the Global Research Director for Deloitte’s Public Sector Industry practice. His new book is “If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Getting Big Things Done in Government.”

As William Gibson wrote in Neuromancer, “the future has already arrived. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.” If you think that the federal government will never go to a virtual work environment, just look around.

Thousands of federal employees are already working this way–albeit only some of the time, often without support from their managers or team members. Remember the blizzards of 2010? The original cost estimate of shutting down the federal government was $100 million in lost productivity a day, but OPM reduced the estimate by roughly $30 million. Why? Because of the 30 percent of federal employees who teleworked.

As part of its workplace flexibility pilots, OPM discovered that all but five people who work out of its office in Pittsburgh were already teleworking. So OPM asked the remaining five to do the same then proceeded to close the office. Cost savings? A cool $200,000 a year.

It’s time to take what is already happening in an ad hoc fashion and make it an intentional, consistent way of operating. The new norm should be: work is not where you go, it’s what you do.

Once you think of work this way, then it’s easy to see how managers and their teams need to be more explicit and transparent about performance expectations, and more coordinated about how to meet those expectations. “Management by walking around” is replaced by managing to results – and giving the team a lot of say in how they achieve those outcomes. Organizations that embrace this way of working have more engaged workers and achieve greater results.

If you are still wondering “why now?” the answer is simple. The world of work has changed irreversibly but the ways of work have not kept pace. Government agencies are being asked to do more -- faster, with greater transparency, and a more complex set of stakeholders. All this with a workforce more varied than ever before -- by gender, generation, background, family structure and even aspiration.

Information technology jobs are one example. Cybersecurity, cloud computing—all require highly skilled people doing work in new ways. As a result, according to a recent federal Chief Information Officers Council report, “Agencies face a daunting task of recruiting and retaining young workers to fill computer-related positions as older technology specialists retire, a trend that requires managers to drastically change long-established bureaucratic work environments and traditions.”

What does this mean? Telecommuting is a good first step toward a more flexible work environment but represents only a fraction of what needs to change. We need a fundamentally new model for thinking about the workplace that acknowledges the sweeping changes in the workforce and society. We can’t change the result without changing the model.

In the private sector, we call this new model the "corporate lattice." Lattice thinking means for one thing that we move away from work as a place you go to what you do. It also acknowledges that the typical linear, vertical career path, epitomized by the “climbing the corporate ladder” metaphor, is not for everybody. Many workers, particularly the Millennials, prefer multidirectional career paths that allow them to dial down or dial up depending on their particular circumstances and give them a breadth of experiences and transferrable skills

For the federal government, such an approach might be termed “From GS to GPS,” where GPS stands for a great place to serve. One of the attributes of GPS is a flexible work environment, where flexibility is not about a specific program or a set of benefits or letting some people work differently some of the time.

Instead it means changing the norms at work—creating an operating model more customized at the individual level and more adaptive at the organizational level.

To help accelerate the change, we welcome your stories—what’s your experience with virtual work?—and ideas for how to make such an approach simply “the way things are done around here.”

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Reader comments

Thu, May 27, 2010 Jen Steele Lafayette, LA

The comment about needing a physical storage place for work products and the risk of losing electronic information if computer equipment at home is stolen assumes a paper work process and reflects a lack awareness of available hardware and software solutions. My state agency's work process is virtually paperless, in large part due to an electronic case record system that is server driven. There is no paper work product to be stored physically. As for hardware, we use thin client devices that are also server driven, so there is zero local information to be lost in the even that the device is stolen. The reader's concerns can be addressed by the use of current technology and mindful redesign of work processes. Often the biggest barriers to work at home are the mental boxes we maintain.

Mon, May 17, 2010 O

It is about time! About time that the government realizes the work place is changing and it's about the time that is saved when employees are treated with respect. I pushed this as a line manager a few years ago and reaped benefits from the workforce while running afoul of a brick and mortar mindset from above. There are clear technical challenges but the real question is whether you consider your employees to be professional that with guidance will give their best effort, or do you consider that given an inch they will take a mile and therefore need to be controlled? Employees who feel they are treated like professionals will tend to contribute wherever and whenever they can, as professionals. Management by results... many organizations have the technology but will they trust supervisors to implement it intelligently? Those that do will get the results they need.

Mon, May 17, 2010 vardo

I made this comment to the companion article, but feel compelled to do so again: The big challenge is the appropriate "first step" for the employer organization. ROWE may be a little strong for the Federal world where the first formalized Performance Management (NSPC) approach has recently been rejected/repealed.

Mon, May 17, 2010 Michael D. Long Knoxville, TN

So please tell me, just where in this utopian environment of telework does the actual work product reside? It is impossible to control and archive records efficiently without a central repository (aka. file cabinets and network file servers). Islands of individual automation and distributed processing is not the model of sound reason, but the brain-child of a neophyte lacking the knowledge and experience necessary to effect proper controls. What happens in the event of government data being stolen during a home burlary? The computer and all records contained on it are now lost. In the case of OPM closing the office and "saving" $200K a year, what is the cost of training every individual to be their own IT staff? The problem with people like the "experts" cited in the article is they always push an agenda that sells books to people without a clue. Such articles as this remind me of the old axiom, "there's a fool born every minute" - too bad we're hiring them into positions of authority within the government...

Mon, May 17, 2010 Mike Washington, DC

You have to give them (employees) the tools and a framework to work within. Many Govt. agencies don't have the infrastructure to properly handle the ability to work from anywhere.

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