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Managers May Be the Key to the Future of Work

In their new book, "Out of Office," authors Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen prompt managers and workers to develop new and more productive ways to work in the future.

As we enter a post-pandemic transition year, there are many unanswered questions about the 2022 workplace. The Washington Post recently reported that governmentwide and agency-specific office reopening guidance were under debate, but there is not yet a schedule for when -- or if -- federal employees will return to their offices in 2022. The federal government now faces its own challenge for “building back better.”

At this point in the year, there are clearly more questions than answers about workplace 2022. In fact, the General Services Administration released a Request for Information containing a list of questions the government has to address as it tackles the “future of work.” 

A new book, Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home by Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen, also presents a series of questions based on their anecdotal assessment of how workers fared in their work-at-home experience during the pandemic. Warzel and Petersen do not present any clear recommendations on the future of work.  Their emphasis is on prompting managers and workers to evaluate their at-home experience and to develop new, more productive ways to work in the future.

The questions about the “future of work” are not new. The Clinton administration’s National Performance Review (Reinventing Government) asked many of the same questions being posed today. Government has now had over 25 years of experience with telecommuting. In 2000, I edited a report on telecommuting, Managing Telecommuting in the Federal Government: An Interim Report by Gina Vega and Louis Brennan, for the IBM Center for the Business of Government. Numerous management books of that era addressed questions about new office space, new office furniture, productivity software, and more flexible work schedules. 

How Will We Work?

After reading Out of Office and following how organizations are responding to the challenges of returning to the office, I began thinking about whether organizations were neglecting an equally crucial issue: are our current set of managers equipped and ready to “manage” the new hybrid workplace? Thus, the question is not just office-first, remote-first, hybrid, or no office, but how will these new combinations be managed? 

One premise of Out of Office is that many workers have been overworked, are not fully productive – even with the latest technologies – and are not being managed very well to achieve an organization’s desired performance. 

Warzel and Petersen write, “The whole post-pandemic ‘when and how will we return to the office’ debate is, in some ways, just a big distraction. The true issue at hand is not where we all work but how we will work.”  

They specifically highlight the challenge to managers of creating an equitable workplace between in-office and remote employees.  

“You can easily imagine,” write Warzel and Peterson, “those who spend more time in the office resenting a workplace that privileges remote workers, and employees working from home will resent coworkers with easier access to superiors.”

Do You Even Want To Manage?

In addition to focusing on the “future of work,” the federal government should now begin focusing on the “the future of the manager.” While criticisms of government managers have been in currency for many years, many are still true. Some promotions to management are based on seniority, not management expertise. Many managers most enjoy working in their area of expertise, not managing subordinates. Some managers’ personalities are not, in fact, suited to managing people. The incentive to seeking management positions has often been to receive a promotion, a higher grade, and a larger salary, not because an individual actually likes managing people and eagerly seeks an opportunity to mentor, develop, and improve the work life of their subordinates. 

The job of the manager is going to get more complex in the years ahead. Managers already face the challenge of the blended workforce: civil servants and contractors. Now, they will be facing the challenge of potentially managing four sets of workers: in office civil servants, in office contractors, remote civil servants, and remote contractors. Each will need the support of their manager. In addition, the President’s Management Agenda notes that the government will face the challenges of implementing “expanded flexibilities in work arrangements, including expanded telework and alternative work schedules and increased adoption of technology, such as cloud computing, collaboration tools, and automation.”   

A Corps For Managers

How can the federal government best address the need for well-trained, equipped, and emphatic managers? One solution might be to create an elite Manager Corps (MC). Individuals would have to apply to this new Manager Corps and in essence, volunteer to assume managerial responsibilities. They would receive “rank-in-person,” much like the Foreign Service and Senior Executive Service. Individuals would come from the ranks of current GS 13-15s. Members of the Corps could be transferred anyplace in government (out of town assignments would be negotiated).  

Once an individual is accepted into the Manager Corps, they would be sent to a new Management Academy to receive training in federal “management.” Managing the new hybrid workplace would be one of the core courses. Paying attention to and developing remote employees, as well as in-person employees, will require special training. Other courses might include customer service and employee engagement. Continuing the often-haphazard process of selecting managers will not meet the challenges of the future. 

The President’s Management Agenda has the worthy goal of making every federal job a good job.  The Agenda envisions a workplace “where all employees are engaged, supported, heard, and empowered with opportunities to learn, grow…” But engagement, supporting, listening, and empowering are not self-executing. The federal government will need well-trained and motivated managers to make the federal government a truly desirable workplace. Management should no longer be an auxiliary task. It should be the primary task of a new, elite management corps. 

Mark A. Abramson is president of Leadership Inc. His most recent book is Government for the Future: Reflection and Vision for Tomorrow’s Leaders (with Daniel J. Chenok and John M. Kamensky).