The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, NASA and the Department of Homeland Security are among the federal agencies that have pursued initiatives to manage a blended workforce during the pandemic.
With its 250,000-strong workforce, the DHS is no different from other institutions experiencing the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, DHS Chief Human Capital Officer Angela Bailey told Federal News Network.
She said that the difficulties employees go through both in frontline services and telework, along with the stress of dealing with the child care situation, only prove that they are a microcosm of the society.
“Whatever it is that the United States or citizens are facing, so too are our employees,” she said.
As the chief human capital officer of DHS, Bailey ensures that she regularly communicates with the workforce by sending weekly emails.
“The number one thing that I’ve really learned is that people want to be connected, that they want to share their stories that they want to—that they want to feel like they’re part of a community,” she said.
The office has backed her effort with a survey with more than 38,000 employee-respondents and 18,000 written feedback.
Two main issues that emerged from the survey are the child care and school situation and the “unnerving” experience of getting to work because of public transportation concerns.
Bailey’s office addresses these challenges by conducting virtual family days and arranging flexible work schedules.
In the course of understanding the employees’ troubles, she said that they need to consider “how do we make smart decisions that [don’t] drive more fear in the workforce and just stress amount, and then that just has an impact on productivity.”
At NASA, the approach in determining the future of work in the space agency is patterned after the scientific method that involves an experimental period to observe emerging patterns from the data and comments gathered.
“More recently we’ve declared that we’re going to treat, really almost starting now and until some point probably in the middle of next year, as kind of an experimental phase,” Jane Datta, NASA CHCO, told Federal News Network.
The employees discuss with their supervisors the different options on their work arrangements such as full-time work-from-home, part-time or an ad-hoc basis, or working from a NASA facility with regularity.
Datta indicated that the space agency would draw from the discussions of what work patterns will arise and which setups will be the effective options.
“[We’re] not pre-supposing that but instead giving ourselves an opportunity to find out what works and what doesn’t work,” she said.
While most agencies are still in the process of figuring out how to handle work arrangements amid the pandemic, the USPTO was way ahead of the game, scaling its workforce as early as 2012.
Jamie Holcombe, USTPO chief information officer, told Federal News Network that even before the health crisis, the agency’s 9,000 patent examiners have been signing into their virtual private network and working remotely daily.
“What we had to do most when COVID struck was scale that bandwidth, scale those servers. There were a lot of lessons learned during that scaling, it was great,” he said.
The agency also expanded its bandwidth tenfold in January 2020, or just months before the pandemic forced most institutions to impose mandatory telework.
Holcombe underscored that the upgrades in the information technology systems of USTPO helped but having contracts in the queue before an emergency hits was just as critical.
“If you try to do it during a crisis, when everyone else is trying to do it, what’s going to happen is you’re going to get in line, and you might not get that capacity. So it was really key that we had that capacity lined up,” he said.
The Potomac Officers Club will host a virtual event on Oct. 7, from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. ET, featuring Bailey as keynote speaker and Datta and Holcombe as panelists. Join the “Optimizing the Hybrid Workforce Forum” to hear more about their insights on sustaining a strong workforce culture, developing performance assessment and leveraging data for agency management and transformation. Register here.