2012: The rise of the virtual workforce

Once considered a nice perk, telework has matured into a crucial aspect of an agency’s operational strategy to lower costs, increase efficiency and promote a healthy work/life balance. But the best is yet to come. This year will usher in new trends and technologies that will transform the federal workforce into a mobile powerhouse.

More than a year after the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 was signed into law, agencies have moved beyond the “what ifs” to the “why nots.” They have left the experimental phase behind with a view toward a more productive workforce empowered by mobile technologies.

When agencies initially set up their telework programs, most provided only the basic tools employees needed to do their jobs remotely: a laptop PC, cell phone and printer, at most. In 2012, the focus will be on enhancing access to virtual collaboration and a distributed work environment, said Cindy Auten, general manager at Telework Exchange. Tools that make employees feel connected to their managers, regardless of where they are, will also make the cultural change easier, she added.

“One of the things we have to work on is technology,” said Pat Tamburrino, deputy assistant secretary for civilian personnel policy at the Defense Department. “Laptops are good, but I’m personally wondering what’s beyond laptops. What other things should I be thinking about for the DOD employee to make telework and telepresence much simpler? I’d love the CIOs and the [chief technology officers] to say, ‘What’s the next breakthrough thing we would have to do?’”

Those technological advances will likely emerge in the form of apps that take mobility to the next level. In 2012, that effort could involve setting up a hybrid enterprise app store. That virtual store would have internal enterprise and mission apps and would also allow access to external, third-party apps, said Mark White, CTO at Deloitte Consulting's technology practice.

“Some of the very first apps in the commercial and federal sectors were about delivering information, whether it’s business-to-consumer or government-to-employee,” White said. “What you then see is the maturation of not just delivering static information on a somewhat broadcast basis but delivering information that is interactive to which you can reply or that is on a narrowcast basis.”

But it’s not just the technology that’s evolving, he added. Mobile technology is also giving virtual workers a new face and transforming them into a “hyper-productive, hyper-available” workforce, he said. Not only can employees do their jobs regardless of time or location, but they have new tools that will allow them do their jobs better, cheaper, faster and in a transformative way.

However, the virtual workforce continues to shift and evolve, so don’t expect any drastic changes, Auten said. “Anyone who thought telework would change overnight is mistaken because anything that deals with a cultural change will take time,” she said. “It’s not meant to flip the switch and have everyone working remotely the next day. Agencies all start on the right track by having that senior leadership support, but some still struggle with getting that management buy-in.”

One way to win over reluctant managers could be to launch a telework pilot program that conveys the value of the approach and stresses the business benefits. “It’s like the Dr. Seuss book ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ — try it if you like,” Auten said. “Agencies are looking for those marketing strategies to help go out there and get the support of managers and employees and have them understand what telework actually means to operate in this new work environment.”

But just as important as carrying the torch for telework is acknowledging that it's not right for everyone, Tamburrino said.

“You have to remember: Telework is not appropriate for everybody,” he said. “The Department of Defense is not like any other federal agency or any private-sector company. [Furthermore,] if someone has a performance problem, they don’t have an entitlement to telework until that performance problem is resolved. And we work really hard to resolve” the problem.

Focused hiring

Close to 120,000 federal employees are expected to leave government in 2012 for retirement or jobs in the private sector. Although conventional wisdom might assume that in tight budget times, those federal jobs will remain vacant, many of them are essential and agencies will have to fill them.

In the 1990s, the federal workforce was reduced by 350,000 jobs. That effort to re-engineer how the government operates failed miserably. Agencies found themselves short-staffed and had to hire contractors to fill the gap. But don’t expert that to happen in 2012, experts say, because budgets won’t allow it.

For the government to meet the demands it faces in increasingly tough times, agencies will start looking for different skill sets. Although the number of feds will be lower in 2012, the focus will be on filling positions in cybersecurity and IT and on finding creative and innovative talent. Competition among job seekers will remain stiff. There will be plenty of people applying for government jobs, but the economy won’t bounce back quickly enough to accommodate every federal job seeker.

Ethics rules

With the pressure to eliminate waste, fraud and abuse, federal employees should expect to see tougher rules on ethical matters in 2012. Although 2011’s Muffingate was largely Muffinmyth, it spotlighted a new proposal from the Office of Government Ethics to ban government employees from attending industry trade shows or accepting gifts worth more than $20.

Critics have said the new rules could chill communications with the public and with professional organizations. The International Association of Exhibitions and Events went as far as calling the proposal an Orwellian measure that would further isolate regulators from the industries they need to understand. Others, including the American Hotel and Lodging Association, pointed out that federal employees’ infrequent attendance at large events was hardly a matter of concern and the events often don’t involve lobbyists.

Nevertheless, the government stands firm in its determination to eliminate waste, even if means blocking access to certain events with the private sector. Although events that require out-of-town traveling could also be out of the question, federal employees might see an increased emphasis on virtual conferences and a spike in online education.

Ad hoc federal IT spending

Will 2012 be the year when the White House ends the ad hoc fiscal year-end spending on IT? Certain indicators suggest it is a strong possibility, including the 25-point plan to reform IT management. With a more intense focus on cutting costs and improving efficiency throughout the government, IT procurement could start shaping up into a more organized approach rather than the typical last-minute spending spree.

Research by the TechAmerica Foundation predicts that total federal IT spending in fiscal 2012 will be more than $80 billion. But the conventional methods of buying federal IT have left much to be desired. Experts say the push to use funds before the fiscal year ends often leads to the purchase of systems and technology that don't support the agency's mission. Instead of saving money, those tools turn into wasteful investments.

However, experts say procurement mismanagement could end in 2012 with the increased focus on the government’s mission to be the wise steward of taxpayers’ dollars. And there’s plenty of cost savings to be found: A 2010 study estimated that the federal government could save as much as $158 billion a year by implementing currently mandated management practices, particularly those that relate to procurement.

Employee morale

Intense budget pressures and cuts to pay, benefits and jobs have created a hostile environment for feds. So it’s no surprise they are not jumping for joy. Their prospects continue to look bleak in 2012, with the certainty of more belt-tightening and the possibility of an extended federal pay freeze.

When nearly 120,000 federal employees leave government service this year, there will undoubtedly be a few disgruntled feds among them. Agencies need to renew their efforts to market themselves as attractive employers that are worth job seekers’ time, or the brain drain from the public sector could be even more severe.

However, a potential one-year extension of the current two-year federal pay freeze could prove to be too much for some feds. Although many will grin and bear it, others have already expressed their intent to move to the commercial sector if the freeze continues beyond two years.

Unless agencies address the morale issue and come up with incentives to retain talented employees in these challenging times, the federal government has a lot more to lose in 2012 than just esprit de corps.

Read about defense IT strategies for 2012 or more forecasts for government IT.

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