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Hiring, Onboarding, Managing: Government Adapts to New Work

In a brave new world of fully remote or hybrid teams, chief information officers need to explore new ways to find talent and build work culture that supports employees and improves outcomes.

Illustration of working remotely and video-conferencing
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Like other employees across California state government, the majority of IT workers shifted to remote work during the pandemic. As government reshapes itself in the wake of COVID-19, many are likely to stay remote, said Abby Snay, deputy secretary for Future of Work at the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency.

The likely shift to work-from-home modalities among government technology teams mirrors private-sector trends. More than half of those who can work at home — 54 percent — say they’d prefer to keep doing so, according to the Pew Research Center. Forty-six percent of those who had never worked from home pre-pandemic say they’d like to continue remote work some or all of the time going forward.

“The bulk of our people will still work from home primarily” once COVID-19 recedes, said Tennessee Deputy Chief Information Officer J.P. McInnes. “We are going to model whatever the agencies decide to do. If the Department of Health, for example, says they are coming back to work three days a week, and two days a week you can work from home, then that’s exactly what the IT team that supports that department will do.”

Across state and local government, the entrenchment of a remote IT workforce will bring new opportunities, and also novel challenges. Government HR and IT experts alike are busily considering the management issues and cultural considerations that may arise, as well as potential new opportunities for recruiting in the highly competitive IT space.

MANAGING REMOTE WORKERS


A long-term shift to a mostly remote IT workforce will bring with it a range of management challenges.

“It puts a strain on managers and supervisors, many of whom are not used to managing employees who work remotely,” said Robert J. Lavigna, director of the Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement, part of CPS HR Consulting. “In the past they may have managed time, attendance and activities, not results or outcomes. There’s going to have to be a transition.”

Historically, public-sector employment has been a pathway to the middle class for people from communities who’ve been historically left behind. These changes potentially open up those pathways, and we should be looking at those opportunities.
Some in government already are anticipating just such a shift. When IT teams go remote, “the manager really has to focus on the effectiveness of employees,” said Austin, Texas, Chief Information Officer Chris Stewart.

“You’re obviously not looking at what time they’re coming in the door, what time they’re leaving, as a measure of effectiveness,” he said. “We need to be looking at work product: Are we meeting customer demand, making our customers happy? Are we getting technologies deployed? Are we doing what we need to do in a timely manner?”

If IT leaders can shift to measuring success based on outcomes, some say, that will be a net win for government technology organizations.

“This hopefully leads to greater autonomy and initiative,” Snay said. “If you tell me the results you want and leave it to me to come up with the best way of achieving those results, I am going to feel more empowered. I am going to take greater initiative. It’s going to spur my creativity, and I’m likely to become a more engaged, productive and loyal worker.”

This higher level of engagement will be important as the public sector continues to compete with the private sector for tech talent. “Anything that gives public-sector IT staffing a competitive advantage is going to make a difference in recruitment and retention,” Snay said.

In order to effectively make that shift, IT managers may need to adjust their skill sets. “We need to train people to supervise differently, to create a culture change that is built around autonomy and initiative,” she said.

Technology can help to drive this new mode. McInnes, for example, already has some of the tools and systems in place to help define measurable outcomes and work outputs.

“We have a very robust performance management system where we define outcome-based goals for every employee,” he said. “We meet with our employees three times a year and we manage against those goals: And are you on track? What obstacles are you facing?”

State and local HR and IT officials agree that going forward, such clear and measurable goals will be more important than ever in evaluating the effectiveness of IT personnel on an individual level.

At the same time, they say, IT leaders also will need to consider the larger cultural issues that may arise in an increasingly work-from-home environment.
Purple background with text that reads "In a future “new normal,” 36% of government IT leaders say “most” of their workforce will continue to work from home. Just 2% say they’ll revert back to pre-pandemic telework levels. Source: Government Technology Events"

BUILDING A TEAM


It can be hard to sustain a coherent team culture when people don’t have a chance to interact in person on a regular basis.

Zoom calls can help, “but technology is not as effective as face-to-face,” Lavigna said. “Managers are going to have to figure out how to communicate more effectively, how to create those personal interactions.”

To keep a cohesive team spirit going, IT leaders need to consider not just the frequency of communications but also the type of interactions. With remote work, there are fewer opportunities for informal communication, the “water cooler” chat that helps to build and define the team culture. Managers need to become more deliberate in creating such moments.

“I’ve heard of things like ‘Wednesday wellness huddles’ where teams will get together just to check in,” Snay said. “There need to be opportunities for bringing people together in that way: impromptu birthday celebrations via Zoom, or informal chatting before a meeting. We need to find those opportunities for bonding and engagement.”

McInnes worries that without such efforts, morale could suffer. While many workers embrace working from home, there’s a possibility that remote work could lead to a sense of isolation, he said. To that end, his senior leadership has made it a point to conduct intensive personal outreach during COVID-19, a practice that will likely persist if remote work endures.

“I might have a list of a hundred people, and over the next five weeks, I’m going to call them all,” he said. “I’m just going to check in, to see how they are doing. Are they adapting? Is there anything they need?”

In a remote work future, it won’t be enough just to foster such interactions: IT leadership will also need to follow key metrics to ensure the cultural piece is remaining intact.

McInnes is heading down that road already, tracking turnover and conducting routine employee engagement surveys. “We take that feedback and we actually involve the teams in coming up with solutions,” he said.

In addition, McInnes is developing a directory to help people find one another within the IT organization. “We have org charts, but they don’t tell you who I am,” he said. “With people working remotely, we need something that says: Here’s this person, here’s what he does, here’s where he fits in the organization.”

Stewart, meanwhile, is making creative use of the ubiquitous video conference as a potential team-building tool. “For our all-employee meeting, we ask for feedback in advance: What do you want to hear about? What questions do you have?” he said. “And we always ensure that there’s time for open communication, for live questions and answers. They can ask the CIO any question they want, and we answer it right then and there.”

By implementing frequent communications, and using metrics to track satisfaction, these state and local leaders are aiming to sustain culture. That will be important, experts say, as government seeks to position itself as an employer of choice.

People work in government in part because they enjoy the sense of purpose, but that sense can easily get lost when personnel are abstracted from the physical spaces of government. Going forward, therefore, state and local IT leaders will need to double down on their messaging around mission.

“We’ve seen examples of government organizations that start their weekly meetings with a mission story,” said Andrew Hewitt, a Forrester senior analyst serving infrastructure and operations professionals. “They try to really connect people back to the impact that they’re driving. They’re highlighting the good work that employees are doing for the community. With remote work, it’s going to be incredibly important to illustrate those stories and to connect people back to that overall mission.”

For those who tell that story well, remote work opens up a new avenue of opportunity. State and local government may find it somewhat easier to recruit IT talent in this new environment — but they’ll need to rethink their recruiting processes in order to make the most of this potential.

RECRUITING REVISITED


On the upside, the rise of remote work could make it easier for IT leaders to fill open seats. With the market for tech talent ever tight, work-from-home may remove some geographic constraints, allowing recruiters to cast a wider net.

Purple background with text that reads "46% of workers who had never worked remotely pre-COVID say they’d like to continue to telecommute at least part of the time. Source: Pew Research Center"
“The whole talent pool for state jobs has opened up,” Snay said. “It’s not just geographic. Remote work has actually been extremely advantageous for people with some disabilities, especially some mobility disabilities which have made commuting harder. Now we are able to recruit a more diverse workforce overall. All that is something for recruiters and hiring managers to keep in mind.”

McInnes said he’s already benefitted from the geographic flexibility. While Tennessee still requires that remote employees live within the state, he’s been able to hire some out-of-state people and to use remote work to ease them into the job as they go about relocating.

“It’s given them a longer time frame to do the move right,” he said. “They have time to get their logistics done, and they can already be working remotely while they’re doing this.”

Even the processes around recruiting have been improved by the rise of remote work. Stewart, for example, said it’s been easier to hire in recent months, when those involved in the process could meet virtually rather than having to convene in person.

“It’s time consuming to hire somebody. You’ve got to get panels of people together, you’ve got to schedule these interviews,” he said. “It’s a lot easier to do that in a remote world. We can get people’s time more easily, and we can get a more diverse group of people together more easily now.”

Remote work may ease recruiting, but it raises new issues around onboarding.

How best to train those incoming IT staffers? While this has traditionally been a face-to-face task, some in state and local government say they are learning to onboard using a mix of in-person and virtual strategies.

Much of onboarding is just paperwork, and with digital signatures, that can all be handled from home, Stewart said. For the more hands-on aspects of training, technology can help. “We utilize our video conferencing tools, our instant messaging tools. We share screens,” he said.

McInnes likewise leans on remote onboarding capabilities, but he augments these with in-person touchpoints. “We have a quarterly new-hire group where the whole leadership team walks down the line introducing themselves,” he said. “I generally follow up with each of the new hires and do a personal welcome just to make them feel connected.”

Most agree that some degree of face-to-face interaction will remain a necessary component of the onboarding process, even in an increasingly remote work environment.

“There are learning-and-development platforms that do a nice job of showing people the culture,” Hewitt said. “But none of that can mimic an in-person experience. The best course of action is to bring those people in. It’s about making them feel part of the family. That’s how you set them up for success.”
Chris Stewart, Austin, Texas, CIO
In Austin, CIO Chris Stewart is using technology to not only speed up the hiring process, but also to train new employees.


EQUITY ISSUES


Government IT organizations that do all this right still may face another series of challenges. As remote work becomes common, new questions around fairness and equity may arise.

In a survey of public-sector workers, Lavigna’s organization found that about half cannot work from home: There are those in law enforcement and emergency services, for example, who need to be physically present. It’s likely that some percentage of the IT workforce likewise will have to remain in the office as well.

“We have people who support public health, who support our prisons, as well as our psych hospital. They have to actually go in. We have desktop support people who actually have to be there to support people,” McInnes said.

How will those on-site people feel about their virtual peers? “There may be public-sector employees who want some additional compensation because they have to report to their work sites while their colleagues are sitting at home,” Lavigna said.

One way to deal with this is through overt gratitude. Stewart, for example, uses a robust recognitions and awards system to lavish praise on those who must be physically on the job. “When you’re not on site, you don’t see what people are doing,” Stewart said. “If people are installing computers or meeting with customers, we want everyone to know about that.”

Equity issues may also arise around compensation. With the rise of remote work, state and local organizations may, for instance, be tempted to follow the federal model of localized pay scales: Those who live in lower-cost-of-living areas get paid less.

Hewitt worries that this formula can breed resentment. “I lean toward paying people what the work is worth, as opposed to paying people to meet their needs in the particular area that they’re in,” he said. This minimizes any perception of inequality, and can drive better outcomes overall. “When you over-invest in that person, you’re more likely to get higher levels of engagement.”

In terms of equity, Snay said, management needs to keep a watchful eye to ensure that work-from-home does not widen existing gaps. When people no longer share space, she suggested, there may be a tendency to cluster in camps of familiarity. That could be problematic.

“When we reduce the casual encounters, we may need to find new ways to enhance diversity,” Snay said. “What has happened historically is that your ‘friends’ tended to be people who came from the same background. Management can be deliberate about creating greater inclusivity. Even the breakout groups in Zoom are ways of doing that, I can put you together with people that you wouldn’t normally meet. But it needs to be intentional.”

On the flip side, Snay added, the shift to remote work could in fact open up the means to drive new levels of equity and fairness in the government IT workforce.

“Public-sector jobs tend to be really good-quality jobs,” she said. “Historically, public-sector employment has been a pathway to the middle class for people from communities who’ve been historically left behind. These changes potentially open up those pathways, and we should be looking at those opportunities.”

With the rise of remote work, government leaders will need to address a range of emerging workforce issues. They’ll need new metrics for productivity, new tools for promoting and sustaining culture. They’ll need new thinking around recruiting, and around issues of equity.

They’ll also need to ensure that all those remote workers have the tools they need to succeed. That in turn has budgetary implications.

Going forward, IT departments “will have to be making the technology investments that enable people to succeed in a remote work scenario,” Hewitt said. “That is going to be a pretty significant investment for them long term, and they need to start planning for that now.”
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