COMMENTARY

Mobility: A golden opportunity in tough budget times

Anthony Williams, former mayor of Washington, D.C., is executive director of the Corporate Executive Board’s government practice.

In charting a path forward in these daunting budget times, the savvy public manager will certainly have some private anxiety. After all, the challenges on the horizon are almost Homeric in nature. Granted, there aren’t the warring legions and vicious monsters of Homer’s “The Iliad” awaiting us, but make no mistake, there are storm clouds approaching.

You’ll be led to believe that looming budget cuts are catastrophic and the casualties will be reduced services to citizens. But don’t be fooled. These times actually present great opportunities to reduce unnecessary costs and boost staff productivity by thinking in a fundamentally different way.

It might be easier to come up with new ways of dealing with our classic problems than we think. According to the Office of Personnel Management’s latest Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, 59 percent of feds say they are encouraged to come up with new and better ways of doing things.

The area of mobility might be a good place to start. Federal agencies have a golden opportunity to increase innovation, reduce costs and potentially boost employee morale. How? By shrinking their real estate footprint, encouraging telework and embracing collaboration technologies. (I’ll elaborate on that last point in future columns.)

So why aren’t we hearing more about progress on this front? There are three possible reasons. First, although there are mandates and guidance in each of those areas — to encourage telework, dispose of excess real property, consolidate data centers and, most recently, increase federal mobility through a framework introduced by the federal CIO — they are seen as discrete mandates managed by distinct functional areas and approached in an uncoordinated fashion. Second, agencies need to highlight the connection between mission and workplace needs to ensure that employees make the critical link between where they work, what they do and how the work gets done.

Third (and most challenging), a cultural change is required for agencies to embrace the fact that virtual teams and a mobile workforce can be more productive than our current approach to work.

The infrastructure required to make telework successful is fairly straightforward. The problem that hasn’t been solved yet is the cultural resistance that comes from individual managers. On average across the federal government, more than 20 percent of telework-eligible employees haven’t yet received approval from their managers to do so, according to the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. Until managers accept that telework is a cost-effective solution that improves employee engagement and won’t lead to a reduction in productivity, not much will happen.

However, one agency that has made progress in holistic space planning, telework and capacity management is the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. During its major consolidation efforts and migration to a single office building several years ago, USPTO was able to use energy-efficient materials and create organizational alignment around a single framework for space planning. The combined needs for equality in space allocation and flexibility led to a standard 75-square-foot office footprint, and the agency extrapolated up from that baseline to configure offices in increments of 75 square feet to make the process more flexible, fair and cost-effective.

Not coincidentally, USPTO leads the federal sector in terms of teleworkers, with roughly half of its employees working remotely.

I’m not saying that every agency can do what USPTO has done, but they can certainly think about adopting some of those elements. If we can overcome lingering cultural and organizational hurdles, the payoff could be great indeed.

About the Author

Anthony Williams, former mayor of Washington, D.C., is executive director of the Corporate Executive Board’s government practice.

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