Government Agencies Explore Strategies to Manage Mixed Workforce Amid Pandemic

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, NASA and the Department of Homeland Security are among federal agencies that have pursued initiatives to manage a mixed workforce during the pandemic.

With 250,000 employees, DHS is no different than other institutions facing the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Angela Bailey, director of human capital at DHS, told Federal News Network.

She said the struggles employees experience in both front-line services and telecommuting, as well as the stress of dealing with the childcare situation, only prove that they are a microcosm of the society.

“Whatever situation the United States or citizens face, so do our employees,” she said.

As Director of Human Capital for DHS, Bailey makes sure to communicate regularly with staff by sending out weekly emails.

“The first thing I really learned is that people want to be connected, they want to share their stories that they want, that they want to feel part of a community,” said- she declared.

The office supported its efforts with a survey of more than 38,000 employee-respondents and 18,000 written comments.

Two main issues emerging from the survey are the childcare and school situation and the ‘confusing’ experience of commuting to work due to public transport issues.

Bailey’s office is responding to these challenges by hosting virtual family days and arranging flexible work hours.

As part of understanding employees’ problems, she said they need to think about “how to make smart decisions that [don’t] instill more fear in the workforce and just an amount of stress, and that just impacts productivity.

At NASA, the approach to determining the future of work in the space agency is modeled on the scientific method which involves an experimental period to observe emerging patterns from the data and feedback collected.

“More recently, we said that we were going to treat, really almost from now and to some point probably the middle of next year, as a sort of experimental phase,” said Jane Datta, NASA CHCO, at Federal News Network.

Employees discuss with their supervisors various options regarding their working arrangements, such as working full-time from home, part-time or on an ad hoc basis, or working regularly from a NASA facility.

Datta said the space agency would build on discussions about what working patterns would arise and what configurations would be the effective options.

“[We’re] not presupposing that, but rather giving us the opportunity to find out what works and what doesn’t,” she said.

While most agencies are still figuring out how to handle working arrangements amid the pandemic, the USPTO was ahead of the game, expanding its workforce as early as 2012.

Jamie Holcombe, USTPO’s chief information officer, told Federal News Network that even before the health crisis, the agency’s 9,000 patent examiners logged into their virtual private network and worked remotely daily.

“What we needed to do the most when COVID hit was scale that bandwidth, scale those servers. There were a lot of lessons learned in this scale up, it was awesome,” he said.

The agency also increased its bandwidth tenfold in January 2020, just months before the pandemic forced most establishments to impose mandatory telecommuting.

Holcombe stressed that upgrades to USTPO’s computer systems were helpful, but it was equally essential to have contracts in the queue before an emergency occurs.

“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 line up, and you might not have that ability. So it was really essential that we had that capability,” he said.

The Potomac Officers Club will host a virtual event on Oct. 7, from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. ET, with Bailey as keynote speaker and Datta and Holcombe as panelists. Join the “Optimizing the Hybrid Workforce Forum” to learn more about their insights on maintaining a strong workforce culture, developing performance appraisal, and leveraging data for management and agency transformation. Register here.

Ashley C. Reynolds