Instead of rewinding to the pre-pandemic days, let’s fast forward, Bob Westbrooks writes.

Instead of rewinding to the pre-pandemic days, let’s fast forward, Bob Westbrooks writes. Morsa Images/Getty Images

Remote Work: Transitioning from a Social Distancing Measure to a Human Capital Strategy

The former executive director of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee argues that forcing fed workers to show up at a physical location may alienate and demotivate them, and impact productivity.

As the pandemic crisis abates, leaders in the private and public sectors are struggling with how much or little their organizations can and should tolerate remote work in normal operating conditions. While views vary vastly among leaders on the value and virtue of remote work, for employees the genie is out of the bottle. If I were granted three wishes, as a former federal executive I would flip the presumption among too many leaders and policymakers that remote work is inherently inferior to in-office work, I would permit and encourage federal agencies to expand remote work for federal knowledge workers at the option of the employee unless there is a business need to be in an office, and I would eliminate any requirements for a minimum number of in-office days.

Recently, Starbucks announced that its support center employees must return to the office a mandatory three days a week. Meanwhile, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser called on the Biden administration to end remote work practices for federal workers, and the newly selected chair of the House Oversight and Accountability Committee, Rep. James Comer, R-KY, introduced the Stopping Home Office Work’s Unproductive Problems Act or SHOW UP for short. 

On the other side of the equation, according to a recent survey most federal employees prefer to work from home. In December, the American Federation of Government Employees union negotiated an agreement with management at the National Archives and Records Administration that allows all permanent employees to telework full-time, based on business needs.  And unthinkable before the pandemic: on USAJOBS there are hundreds of open remote-only job vacancies at scores of agencies, including positions with critical and chronic shortages like contract specialists that can be done “anywhere in the U.S.”

Before the pandemic, telework was an option for many federal employees. I recall it as a regular but infrequent day that provided some respite from the office chatter. It was a day when I could, without distraction, get work done. That all changed in March 2020 when working from home was no longer an option but an order.

During the pandemic, if you were a federal employee who secured our airports, delivered the mail, or provided medical care to veterans, you knew that work was both something you do and a place you go. Mission and mise en scène are inextricably intertwined. By the way, thank you for your service. With the pandemic, we discovered there are also thousands of knowledge workers in the federal government who, when provided the right communication and collaboration tools coupled with the right culture, can get the work done from anywhere—just as well or even better for the American public.

In my 28-year federal career, including the last two-and-a-half years serving as executive director of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, I have seen remote work evolve from an ad-hoc exception to a public health measure for social distancing to now a promising human capital tool that can be strategically employed to enrich an organization’s ability to recruit the best talent, to retain its higher performers, and to better represent America’s communities.

The PRAC, although relatively small with around 50 employees, offers a window into the advantages of a remote work environment. The PRAC was created in the CARES Act to support the oversight work of inspectors general and provide independent transparency and oversight of pandemic relief spending. The organization was born during the COVID-19 national emergency, so there was no normal to get back to. With an urgent mission and a five-year statutory life, the PRAC had no alternative but to immediately embrace remote work. It was not a temporary inconvenience but an operating reality.  

With mission in mind, the PRAC was deliberately designed as a distributed workforce in a virtual workplace with a minimally viable footprint in Washington, DC. This strategy significantly widened the talent pool. The PRAC found no shortage of professionals outside the DC metro area with top-flight credentials and a passion for public service. The flexibility of the remote work environment buoyed staff morale generally through successive COVID waves and helped the PRAC retain top performers when they experienced life changes. 

Recruitment and retention aside, the PRAC’s remote work environment has attracted professionals who better represent America’s communities. The PRAC has staff in the DC area and in five time zones, in communities large and small through the U.S., and one territory. It is a team of professionals from various social backgrounds and with varied lived experiences which allows them to conceptualize issues with fresh and local perspectives.

With mission in mind, PRAC staff were provided with the right communication and collaboration tools, along with supporting norms. With mission in mind, the PRAC underpinned its remote culture with a relentless commitment to collaboration with all its oversight partners, including federal, state and local officials. The result: PRAC’s staff and culture were recently recognized by the AGA in its 2022 IG Survey which commended the PRAC’s “best and brightest approach” and called its collaborative efforts a “a turning point for the oversight community” and a ”catalyst for accelerating significant change.” The PRAC experiment can be replicated and scaled. 

In the past two plus years, technology has sufficiently advanced to the point where video conferencing offers a reasonable alternative in most instances to in-person meetings, and we have discovered that those serendipitous sparks of creativity that sometimes spur innovation can happen on a video call just as well as in person. As a former federal executive, I also know that workers can, in fact, be trusted to manage the inevitable distractions when we merge our home and workplaces and get the work done.

Video conferencing does not fully substitute for in-person interactions in all instances. In-person meetings are occasionally required based on business needs. But for thousands of talented and dedicated public servants, the remote work genie is out of the bottle and forcing them now to show up at a physical location will likely serve to alienate and demotivate and may effectively reduce productivity. Instead, agency leaders should be focused on building and optimizing forward focused work environments that meet the needs of today and tomorrow. Rather than presuming that remote work is inherently inferior, leaders can build fit-for-purpose remote environments capable of meeting agency objectives and service levels. Leading a remote workforce is unquestionably more difficult. If the job was easy, anyone could do it. Instead of rewinding to the pre-pandemic days, let’s fast forward.