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No Small Task: Maintaining Culture in a Hybrid-Work World

As governments navigate the return to in-person work — or not — leaders must make deliberate efforts to make sure staff feel engaged and valued regardless of where they’re working from.

an empty office building
GT did a series a few years ago that looked at whether millennials wanted to work for government. Back in 2017, the number of government workers nearing retirement age was concerning to many. Our series aimed to examine what it would take to inject some new workers into government.

One takeaway from several interviewees was the sense of mission that government work offers: being able to have a real community impact is repeatedly shown to weigh heavily in employment decisions.

But as government and the rest of the country starts returning to pre-pandemic activity levels, one lingering issue is how to maintain an engaged workforce. Are employees who are working at home as connected to their organizational mission? How do managers ensure staff know that their work is valued?

Research from Quantum Workplace and the Human Capital Institute identified six characteristics of organizations with “good” company culture: They’re people-driven, high-performing, caring, supportive, innovative and flexible.

Demonstrating a commitment to these values can be harder in virtual environments than physical ones; practices that were working well pre-pandemic don’t necessarily translate to the hybrid work environments that are just now starting to take shape.

At the NASCIO Midyear virtual event in late May, panelists contemplated the enormity of the challenges confronting state CIOs and others in management. “We’ve been through a giant social experiment in the last 15 months,” said Lee Rainie, Pew Research Center director of Internet and technology research, “and we’re heading into an even bigger one.”

The great remote shift of 2020 and beyond proved that technology can capably bridge the productivity gaps many people feared, but building connection between people is a greater challenge.

“I’m not concerned from a technology perspective,” explained Texas Department of Information Resources Executive Director Amanda Crawford in a discussion about hybrid work, “but from a logistical and management perspective how we’re able to keep cohesive teams.”

Former Delaware CIO James Collins, now an executive at Microsoft, moderated a NASCIO panel on workforce that underscored concerns about culture. Microsoft itself conducted an exhaustive workforce survey with revealing results. Among its findings is that “high productivity is masking an exhausted workforce.” Without the buffer of a commute to serve as a dividing line between work and home, employees report working more after hours, leading to growing concerns about burnout.

The onus is on leaders to be intentional about communicating respect for work-life balance. What can also go far is making an effort to personally connect with employees, and “being very deliberate about being inclusive … and inviting people to engage,” Collins said, noting that not everyone connects in the same way.

Another piece of advice is to lead with both empathy and authenticity to foster a genuine sense of connection between people and encourage organizational loyalty.

The shift to hybrid work environments requires a shift in mindset as well. Maine CIO Fred Brittain admitted that pre-pandemic, he likely would not have seen the value of the mindfulness training his department recently held. They also held a virtual IT variety show as another way to help staff connect informally. And while every idea won’t speak to every employee, Brittain said, it’s important to “reach for ideas you might never have considered before.”
Noelle Knell has been the editor of Government Technology magazine for e.Republic since 2015. She has more than two decades of writing and editing experience, covering public projects, transportation, business and technology. A California native, she has worked in both state and local government, and is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history. She can be reached via email and on Twitter.