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Rethinking Agency Organization and Productivity Post-COVID

The relative success of remote work has proved that in many cases government staff are just as, if not more, productive when they work away from the office. More agile structures like holacracy might be ones to model.

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With my computer’s latest operating system update, I now receive notifications about how optimized my workdays are. It reports that my weeks tend to begin with a suboptimized calendar because only 50 percent of my work week is booked with scheduled appointments. What the software considers suboptimized is what I consider precious opportunities to get real work done.

It would be simple to game this new system by blocking out times for the work, but that could confound colleagues checking my availability for a quick call about something that needs to be discussed. Those quick syncs have become even more important in these work-from-home COVID-19 times. They help keep projects moving while respecting the sovereignty of those responsible for certain functions or domains within the organization. Adding placeholders or fake appointments to my calendar to appease an algorithm would come at a cost to colleagues and collaborators who would just want to sync up on something. So I resist the temptation to clutter up the calendar, my productivity score be damned.

Of course, my new automated minder can only monitor what it can see, and its analysis is simplistic. The data from such rudimentary measures is a surrogate for anticipated better metrics needed in a developing work world in which “virtual should be the default,” as David Graham, chief innovation officer of Carlsbad, Calif., told the recent Smart Cities Connect Conference. During the opening session of the conference, Digi.City Founder Chelsea Collier told the gathering that “we’re learning how to people again.”

Learning to people again could become a defining characteristic of the “after times” as the pandemic challenged the status quo, catalyzed virtual and hybrid work models, and spurred the development (or repositioning) of productivity and human capital management software. The situation remains fluid thanks to everything from vaccine mandates to limited accommodations and changing work rules.

If you believe governments hire smart and competent people — and, on balance, they do — this transition creates a potentially transformational moment around employee self-management. The institutional structures (and constraints) of bureaucratic hierarchy are being reconfigured and, in some cases, removed altogether.

It opens up some interesting questions: What if dynamic roles replaced static job descriptions? What if distributed authority displaced delegated authority? What if rapid iteration took the place of large-scale reorganizations, especially in these fluid times? What if transparent rules eliminated the need for alignment via politics?

The result would be a flatter organization that is more well suited to work being done at a distance and through smaller nodes of self-managed sole contributors. Software entrepreneur Brian Robertson gave it a name, “holacracy,” which he adapted from the term “holarchy,” coined by Arthur Koestler in his 1967 book The Ghost in the Machine.

The Harvard Business Review offers a three-part definition of the model:

“(1) Teams are the structure. Within them, individual ‘roles’ are collectively defined and assigned to accomplish the work; (2) Teams design and govern themselves, while nested within a larger structure; and (3) Leadership is contextual. It’s distributed among roles, not individuals, and responsibilities shift according to fit and as the work changes.”

Five years ago, the state of Washington’s technology agency, WaTech, experimented with holacracy, complete with union involvement, a control group of employees in a conventional work environment for study purposes, and a Harvard-style case study that documented double-digit gains in productivity and job satisfaction. From an initial pool of 600 prospects, the experiment ended up focused on a team of 20 people. And that goes to its Achilles’ heel: the seeming inability to scale. WaTech was unable to make it scale, nor were much larger organizations such as GitHub, Zappos and Medium.

But wait. In our present “after times,” the structural constraints — organizational and physical — that worked against the Washington experiment are themselves being squeezed to fit into a new (post?) pandemic model.

Autonomous, independent teams and individuals can bring reliability and adaptability to the work of government. Flatter structures and self-managed employees won’t displace big government, but they can help public agencies be nimble and robust during rapidly changing times. After stumbling around in the confusion of a protracted pandemic, we may be entering an era of accidental holacracy.
Paul W. Taylor is the Executive Editor at E.Republic and of its flagship titles - Government Technology and Governing.