How federal agencies can reopen after the pandemic in an inclusive and equitable way
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, only 3% of federal employees worked remotely. However, 59% worked remotely at the peak of the pandemic—an unprecedented shift. As COVID-19 cases continue to drop and vaccines become increasingly available, federal agencies must develop plans to reopen in an inclusive and equitable way. Even as offices reopen after the pandemic, the Office of Personnel Management has said that it expects hybrid work environments and remote work to stay.
An equitable and inclusive reopening strategy ensures that all workers can succeed in this new type of workplace. A culture of belonging must be established for all employees and barriers to success must be dismantled. For example, an equitable and inclusive workplace supports employee mental health and provides accommodations for those who may not be able to work onsite due to child and family care responsibilities.
Employers and employees can benefit from working remotely. Some research shows that remote work is associated with reduced absenteeism, higher employee retention and improved worker performance. Increased work flexibility can also decrease stress—an especially important benefit give the general decline in employees’ mental health due to the pandemic.
Additionally, people who may face violence or harassment, such as transgender individuals, can benefit from remote work. The lack of a commute and the ability to personalize office space can also benefit people with disabilities or those responsible for child care, family care and other forms of unpaid household labor. Finally, remote work enables employers to recruit better, more diverse talent from around the world and broaden their applicant pools.
Despite these benefits, however, remote and hybrid workers often are associated with negative stereotypes like laziness and remote workers are more likely to have lower performance evaluations and decreased pay. Remote work can both cause and reaffirm workplace inequities. For example, studies show that women who work remotely or in a hybrid environment tend to receive lower performance evaluations than men who also telework. A recent New York Times article similarly argues that people of color who work remotely are less likely to advance professionally than their white counterparts who work from home.
To successfully create an effective, inclusive and equitable remote or hybrid workplace after the pandemic, federal agencies should consider the following strategies when reopening:
Allow hybrid and remote work: Remote and hybrid work may be helpful for certain workers. For example, parents may be entitled by law to have remote work flexibility when their children’s schools reopen. Team leaders and agency heads should make hybrid and remote work possible, and employees should honestly evaluate and communicate what kind of work environment suits them best.
Model hybrid and remote work schemes: When high-level workers openly speak about their own flexible work schedules, they normalize hybrid work and offset negative stereotypes about remote work by showing that leaders and other top staff also work remotely. To further normalize hybrid work, employees should openly discuss their flexible work schedules with colleagues, and provide tips and support to others interested in telework.
Out of sight does not mean out of mind: Team leaders and employees need to make sure that everyone is at important meetings and able to take advantage of professional and team building opportunities—even if they work remotely. Leaders should clearly communicate when planning and brainstorming meetings will happen and set weekly meeting times that work for everyone.
Equip supervisors to manage effectively: Supervisors need to confront biases around remote work and learn best practices for communicating with and appreciating the work of employees they don’t see regularly. Managers can establish daily check-ins, set communication expectations, encourage employees to create new processes, and provide emotional support. Employees can manage up by improving their self-advocacy skills, informing supervisors about work successes and maintaining open lines of communication.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forever changed the landscape of remote work and federal agencies must adapt accordingly. The Partnership for Public Service has additional recommendations for effective government management in a post-pandemic world. With these four tips, federal employees at all levels will help their agencies reopen after the pandemic in an equitable and inclusive way.