Workplace flexibility as the new normal

Federal managers need to stop worrying about where their employees are and more about the work that gets done, write Deloitte's Anne Weisberg and William D. Eggers.

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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