SBA’s Elias Hernandez on Telework and Distributing Relief During the Pandemic
The agency “has not missed a beat,” and will be updating its policies on remote work for the long haul, says chief human capital officer.
The Small Business Administration is updating its telework and remote work policies following the success it had during the pandemic, said its chief human capital officer.
Elias Hernandez has been SBA’s chief human capital officer since June 2016. He was previously chief officer of the Veterans Health Administration’s Workforce Management and Consulting Office and before that retired from the Army at the rank of sergeant major following 24 years of active-duty military service.
“SBA has not missed a beat, as we shifted to maximum telework during the pandemic,” Hernandez told Government Executive in a recent interview “We scaled from a $40 billion portfolio to more than $1 trillion in relief, and we delivered much assistance swiftly and equitably. To deliver the support we hired thousands of employees to support the pandemic programs. Most of them worked 100% from a remote location. In addition to the additional staff and contract support, we have implemented artificial intelligence capabilities to support areas of high demand such as some of the call centers and some of the processing centers.”
Hernandez said SBA is working on updated telework and remote work policies in order to prepare for the post-pandemic landscape. In a follow-up response this week, SBA told Government Executive the agency’s telework standard operating procedure was updated to follow maximum flexibility in accordance with the Telework Enhancement Act and its updated remote work policy should be published by the end of the second quarter of fiscal 2022 or sooner.
The full interview with Hernandez is below and has been edited lightly for clarity and length.
Can you please tell me some of your main roles and responsibilities as SBA’s chief human capital officer?
I am responsible for providing leadership and executive oversight for the agency's human capital management program to carry out the agency's responsibilities, or select them, developing and managing a high caliber workforce ready to support America's entrepreneurs as they seize opportunities to grow and reach the market. I’m also accountable for the strategic and operational execution of all aspects of human capital management, including human resources, policy, recruitment and retention, workforce development, executive resources, workforce planning, performance management, compensation and benefits, labor-employer relations, work life programs and HR IT systems. I run the division and oversee the transformation of human resources systems, improving quality of human resources information and services, and implementing all legislative and regulatory requirements affecting human resources.
Can you please talk about the challenges and successes of telework during the pandemic? Also, do you foresee making any long-term changes to your telework policies or flexible work arrangements after the pandemic?
Absolutely. I can honestly say that SBA has adapted to the current work environment almost seamlessly...We scaled from a $40 billion portfolio to more than $1 trillion [with the COVID relief] and we delivered much needed assistance swiftly and equitably. In part, this was because of some of the HR and IT modernization efforts that took place prior to the pandemic.
Let me share a few examples related to this. SBA has leveraged cloud technology for its work in the pandemic response. Cloud capabilities have allowed us to introduce virtual desktop capabilities for thousands of employees, and hire in support of the agency’s pandemic and disaster response mission. That flexibility allowed SBA to set up employees with secure virtual desktops without having to worry about physically securing actual machines.
Another example is the Office of Human Resources’ implementation of the web-based, electronic sensor system. This system allows us to accurately monitor telework agreements, leave requests and, most importantly, ensure employees are properly compensated for the work that they are doing...We provided training...to help employees navigate the stresses of teleworking and the pandemic. We reduced our time to hire to less than 50 days, while the governmentwide goal is 80 days. We also converted into a virtual onboarding process.
And also, during the pandemic, SBA was able to continue to improve [on achieving] a high level of employee engagement, [with] a multitude of programs targeted to address levers of employee engagement. SBA has achieved an employee engagement index of 73%, which was a 10 percentage point increase since 2016, and improved its global satisfaction index to 72% which was a 16% percentage point increase since 2016.
This dramatic improvement stemmed from the implementation of programs strategically targeted to address engagement drivers and working with SBA leaders to tackle some of the challenges identified in the previous [Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey]. To prepare for the post-pandemic [world], we drafted a new remote work policy that is currently being reviewed, as well as updated our telework policy to provide a framework, allowing managers and employees the flexibility to maximize telework.
We have been able to maintain the mission of the agency, while at the same time taking into consideration the needs of our employees, and we have exercised our telework capabilities by providing the flexibility needed for the organization to be successful.
Have you started bringing employees back into offices and if so, what has that process been like?
Yes, we are working hard to prepare the agency to return to the office safely, obviously with the top priority being getting employees vaccinated. We are starting to return with senior leaders first and then managers and supervisors, followed last by the remaining employees. Of course, we currently have some employees who are safely coming into the buildings because either all or some of their work cannot be performed virtually. We have safety measures in place to take care of those employees. Employees who were hired as remote employees will continue to be remote, others will return one to three days per pay period first. Then managers and employees will evaluate their previous telework schedule and adjust...We are making every effort to prepare for a safe return to the workplace by taking into consideration all the guidance given by the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management and information that’s coming from the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force.
One last question on the pandemic: Your agency was charged with distributing several relief packages, so how did you and your workforce manage that work in addition to what you normally do?
As I mentioned, SBA has not missed a beat, as we shifted to maximum telework during the pandemic. We scaled up from a $40 billion portfolio to more than $1 trillion in relief, and we delivered much assistance swiftly and equitably. To deliver the support we hired thousands of employees to support the pandemic programs. Most of them worked 100% from a remote location. In addition, we have implemented artificial intelligence capabilities to support areas of high demand such as some of the call centers and some of the processing centers when we have had a high volume of loan application requests.
SBA employs individuals who are innovative and passionate about the mission of helping over 31 million small businesses. We have a customer centric culture that is focused on continuing to get out billions of dollars of relief to small businesses. We are working to improve efficiencies and more swiftly deliver the high-in-demand programs.
Switching gears, President Biden issued an executive order a couple months ago about improving diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility in the federal workforce, so can you talk about how you're working to implement that?
SBA has an excellent foundation in terms of diversity, equity and inclusion. And we recently conducted an assessment, which demonstrated we have the building blocks, in terms of our recruitment, performance management, training and processes, and we are developing a plan to ensure that we take a strategic, integrated approach to ensure improvement in those areas. We have a dedicated council with representatives from across the agency to ensure we improve diversity, equity and inclusion, not only within SBA, but with our various external programs for small businesses. The agency is committed to breaking down barriers to capital and opportunities for all communities in small business. We continue to deliver billions of dollars in COVID-19 relief and we are focused on getting that funding into the hands of the underserved small businesses that are in the most need.
What's your relationship like with the unions that represent SBA employees?
At SBA we have two unions that represent SBA employees: [The National Federation of Federal Employees and American Federation of Government Employees] ...Having a professional and transparent relationship with the union is essential to the success of the organization. I pride myself in maintaining an open line of communication with the union by keeping them informed of new initiatives, workforce requirements and changes affecting the employees they represent. We do our best to maintain a positive relationship with the union, even in situations where we do not agree. We have a professional and amicable relationship with AFGE and NFFE, as we continue to address the needs of the agency, while balancing the needs of our employees during this very difficult moment in the history of the nation.
Is there anything else that we didn’t touch on that you would like to add?
I’m very proud of the work that Small Business Administration employees have done in support of the economic recovery. As I mentioned before, our portfolio grew exponentially, the number of employees grew in the organization and we did all of this and the delivery of services to the entrepreneurs during this moment of need, all while teleworking. Teleworking is an effective tool to continue to deliver on the mission of federal agencies and it's something that we as human capital officials take into consideration in future strategy initiatives that we put in place to support the mission of the agency as well as the needs of the employees.