The federal government, like many public and private organizations, sent employees home at the onset of the Covid pandemic. Now that people are beginning to cautiously return to their offices, the Washington Post reports that policy-makers plan to make many work-from-home government jobs permanently WFH. This major policy shift affects agency cultures, procedures, and job opportunities.
Unpacking the story:
- “The shift across the government, whose details are still being finalized, comes after the risk-averse federal bureaucracy had fallen behind private companies when it came to embracing telework — a posture driven by a perception that employees would slack off unless they were tethered to their office cubicles.”
The perception that employees are less productive if they’re working at home is a notion that has been thoroughly disproven. Forbes.com cites studies showing 35-45% increases in productivity, with 4.4% output increase.
- “…the administration is set to release long-awaited guidance to agencies about when and how many federal employees can return to the office — likely in hybrid workplaces that combine in-person and at-home options…”
Some forward-thinking businesses had already established hybrid workplaces prior to the pandemic. Now every private and public organization can benefit from those early-adopters’ experiences: increasing supportive remote-work tech; reducing physical office space; and preserving corporate culture with in-person onboarding, mentoring, and “water cooler moments.”
- “Some federal workers who now work remotely cannot fully perform their duties, some lawmakers have complained — saying their constituents still cannot get through to a live IRS representative on the phone because a limited number of employees are reporting to the office…There’s also bipartisan concern about thin in-person staffing levels at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, an arm of the National Archives that provides veterans with vital paper records they need to obtain benefits, access to health care and burials at veterans cemeteries.”
In defense of the government agencies, many were not technologically prepared for the sudden shift to remote work. However, there are solid tech solutions for the challenge of in-person short staffing. Secure distributed call systems and database access keep phones fully manned and customers fully served. Imaged documents in a digital database give remote workers the necessary access to agency information on everything from veterans’ personnel records to historical agricultural records.
- “Despite the challenges, a broad rethinking of the federal workplace to include remote and virtual options brings big positives, economists and personnel experts say, by appealing to younger workers in particular and helping employers expand their talent pool.”
The pandemic workstyle, whether hybrid or 100% remote, has turned out to be beneficial for many private-sector organizations. Employees like the flexibility, and employers like the improved productivity and lower overhead. Government HR offices will have to compete with private-sector recruiters who are including a WFH option as a hiring incentive.
The federal government is a big ship, and it doesn’t change course as fast as some of the more agile private enterprises. Nevertheless, given a little more time and the right technology, the new workstyle can be beneficial for agencies and taxpayers alike.
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FAIR has many meanings, but in the digital world it is an acronym. It stands for Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable – principles that make data truly useful. FAIR principles are often applied to scientific research data, but they apply equally to healthcare, government agencies, and legal and judicial systems. When your organization images its paper documents, the resulting data is FAIR.
- Findable – Locating specific data in paper documents is a slow manual process. Finding it in a digital document is as fast as the speed of electricity.
- Accessible – Paper documents take time to pull from files, time to copy, time to distribute. They’re easy to damage and easy to lose. But once a paper document is imaged, it is safe and secure; access is managed and tracked; and distribution takes just moments.
- Interoperable – Unstructured data is the greatest obstacle to interoperability, and paper is the ultimate unstructured data (affecting Findability and Accessibility as well). In contrast, the structured data of imaged documents is usable by different systems in different organizations. For example, doctors’ offices, hospitals, and pharmacies can send and utilize patient data across systems.
- Reusable – When data is “trapped” on paper, it’s time-consuming to find and extract it for re-using in combination with other data. But the data in imaged documents can be extracted instantaneously and re-used with other data sets to gain new insights and increase the data’s ROI.
When paper documents are converted to digital data, the usefulness of the data is multiplied. Make data FAIR, and make it an even more valuable asset.
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“Time is money.” Benjamin Franklin said it, and he was not wrong. It’s a basic principle of capitalism. Disaster awaits business managers who don’t bear in mind the value of time.
Writing in Inc.com, Jessica Stillman reports on a mind trick recommended by Harvard Business School professor Arthur C. Brooks, who examined individuals’ time-wasting habits. Some people, for example, may want to reduce the quantity of leisure hours they devote to social media and streaming entertainment, but they find it hard to make the change. Brooks suggests assigning a dollar value to the hours spent bingeing: “If you consume the average amount of social media in America (about 142 minutes per day) and earn the average hourly wage (about $29.92), you are effectively ‘spending’ about $71 worth of time per day on this activity.” A study at the University of Toronto found that when people thought of their free time in dollar terms, they began to reduce the number of hours they spent noodling around online.
That’s not to say that all idle time is wasted time. Numerous studies have shown the value of the daydreaming, spacing out, and aimless mental wanderings that result in creative “aha” moments.
But when it comes to business, time and money go hand in hand. Tools which reduce the duration of a task, without compromising quality, have been continuously developed throughout history – for example, handwritten communications became typed communications, then faxed communications, then emailed, texted, uplinked, downloaded, and stored in the cloud. All these time-saving tools have, for the most part, allowed us to do more in less time. And that yields a financial benefit.
One such tool is RFID. Inventory management, where RFID began, is a labor-intensive and error-prone task when done by hand. RFID increases inventory speed by a factor of 20. A University of Arkansas study found that an RFID inventory system could count 5,000 items per hour vs. a bar code system which counted 200 items per hour.
Moreover, much of that counting can be accomplished automatically. Doorway-mounted RFID readers track every tagged item that passes in or out, without human oversight. And the count is supremely accurate; no need to spend hours reviewing and correcting errors.
RFID minimizes the amount of human involvement in a vital business task, and it assures high quality data. It’s one of those tools that frees us humans to do what we do best: think and interact. What can you accomplish with that extra time? More important: How much will it cost your business to not do more in less time?
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As some non-essential workers begin to return to the workplace after a year of working from home, they are discovering a museum-like scene: offices frozen in time. As reported in this Washington Post story, some offices look a bit like Pompeii after the Vesuvius eruption. Dusty post-it notes and coffee cups sit on desks where they were left a year ago. Break-room refrigerators hold months-old food. Calendars still show March 2020 appointments.
And yet, through the weeks and then the months that piled up into a year or more of office absence, we somehow continued with the work we were doing when we were all sent home. How is it possible that businesses kept functioning productively, remotely, while their offices became dioramas of The Early-2020 Workplace?
Information technology is the answer, of course. When a business has converted from paper-based operations to digital format, work from home (WFH) isn’t just possible, it’s practical. A remotely-accessible database of imaged documents keeps the wheels of business moving.
Employees have discovered the benefits of WFH and they’re unwilling to give them up. The scheduling flexibility of WFH has improved staffers’ work-life balance even as their productivity has increased. Nevertheless, in-person collaboration and culture are sorely missed, and valuable professional relationships are suffering. The hybrid office is predicted to become the dominant workstyle as we move toward a post-pandemic world.
McKinsey researcher Dr. Susan Lund, quoted in Fast Company, states that the return to work will emphasize the kind of social interaction that supports collaborative work. Face-to-face team projects will happen in business offices. Individual tasks or extended heads-down work will be done at home.
With 68% of CEOs planning to downsize office space, design and FM professionals have an opportunity to reshape offices into updated team-supportive offices. IT, too, is part of the design picture; with IT imaging a business’s paper documents to a digital data source, less filing space is needed, making room for more teamwork in less total area.
Tomorrow’s hybrid-office-space design will emphasize togetherness, encouraging what the Harvard Business Review terms “unstructured collaboration:” those water-cooler moments that lead to fruitful connections and breakthroughs. The new offices will probably look rather different than the work spaces we walked away from a year ago. Will anyone preserve a piece of the museum-quality time capsule of the old offices? If you are returning to work in old Pompeii, we’d like to hear from you.
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