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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The benefits of digital asset management (DAM), including RFID, are a hot topic these days. RFID applications are available for any sort of business. But owners and managers of organizations in the service sectors, from finance and law to healthcare and education, may think RFID is just an inventory tool for the retail and logistics sectors.
If you think your enterprise couldn’t benefit from RFID, think again.
- Asset Tracking – Ever notice how there are never enough chairs in the conference room? Furniture, laptops, and other work tools have a way of wandering from their assigned locations. RFID tags keep tabs on the location of these peripatetic items, as well as providing information on their age and condition. Office and facility managers can easily identify aging furnishings that need repairs or replacement, and pinpoint the location of every physical asset. Plus when inventory time comes, the RFID system can deliver a document listing the assigned value of each item currently in the facility, making financial reporting quicker and simpler. What is does it cost your business to update capital inventory records by hand?
- Personnel Tracking – In busy public settings like hospitals or schools, knowing the location of key personnel can save time, or even save a life. RFID-enabled personnel badges keep track of people’s movements and current whereabouts so no time is wasted when someone is urgently needed. RFID personnel badges work with an institution’s security system to manage access to restricted areas and maintain safety. And in emergency situations, an RFID system can tell first responders who is inside and where they are. What is the dollar value of RFID-managed security and safety?
- Document Tracking – We always advocate converting paper documents to digital documents via a well-planned imaging program; imaged documents are secure, shareable with teams, and save the real estate costs of large file rooms. But in many offices there are documents that need to be retained as paper even if they have been imaged. Paper files are easy to lose or misplace (one of the advantages of imaging), but with the addition of small, inconspicuous RFID tags, the location of a file can be tracked throughout an office. Doorway RFID readers monitor the movement of files from one room to another, and files can be located with a quick look at the tracking record. PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates an average of 25 extra hours to recreate a lost document; how much would that cost your business?
Keep in mind that RFID, unlike bar codes, doesn’t require direct sight lines to record and track business assets carrying RFID tags. Once items or personnel are assigned their unique RFID tag, doorway readers track their movements automatically as they pass from one room to another. And inventory updates can be as simple as walking into a room and pressing a button on an RFID reader. You’ll instantly collect data on all the capital assets the room contains; no need to look through cabinets and underneath furniture to read bar code IDs. RFID is a timesaver, and like its other benefits, that translates into money.
RFID systems come in many shapes and sizes, and can be scaled up or down to suit your organization’s needs. When you start adding up the costs of lost documents, lost equipment, and lost time, it’s clear that you shouldn’t miss out on the benefits of RFID.
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A deadline is looming for government agencies: By December 31, 2019, they must be able to manage all their records in an electronic format. In the private sector, too, businesses and professional practices have been changing over to electronic record keeping. When your organization’s leaders mandate a move to digital operations, what will that mean for your area of responsibility?
Last year, the director of records management and outreach of NARA (National Archives and Records Administration) issued a useful cost-benefit breakdown that the private sector, as well as the public sector, can utilize for planning a document conversion program. Now that this multi-year conversion effort is nearing its deadline, the same office has published criteria for the successful management of electronic records. And like the cost-benefit analysis, the NARA success guidelines can be applied to private-sector organizations as well.
Among the key benefits of imaging are security, searchability, retrievability, and audit trails. A successful document conversion program will produce these benefits. While the NARA success guidelines are intended for records that originate electronically, a number of the success criteria are applicable to enterprises making the transition from paper to digital documents via an imaging program, including:
- Well-designed access controls that let your organization perform its business functions without additional productivity roadblocks.
- Imaged documents that comply with NARA format and metadata requirements, as well as Sec. 508 regulations, for those enterprises doing business with the federal government.
- Policies that support digital document management, especially organization-wide communication, stakeholder involvement, and personnel training.
When the document conversion mandate comes from your private-sector business’s C-suite, there won’t be an agency like NARA to help guide your transition to electronic records management. But that doesn’t mean you can’t achieve the same document-conversion success that the federal agencies have. Reach out to a specialty vendor or consultant working in the imaging field to have them develop a custom conversion program designed for your specific needs.
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From finance to banking to healthcare to day care, industry regulatory compliance is part of the business of doing business. Part of compliance – a big part – is records management, and many of those records are in paper form. Paper has a long and noble history, but it is a very labor-intensive medium, especially when a compliance audit demands supporting documents for your operations. If your paper documents haven’t been converted into searchable e-documents by a document conversion expert, your mission-related productivity will suffer while your team rummages through files.
OCR adds searchability
Locating a specific piece of information, even if a document has been scanned and filed in an electronic archive, is an arduous and time-consuming task unless the document was scanned via OCR (optical character reader) software. A standard PDF conversion is not readily searchable; to make a PDF searchable, it must be re-scanned through OCR software. Often the OCR software must be custom-formatted to understand certain areas within the document (account numbers, signatures, etc.), a task requiring expertise that may not be part of an in-house administrator’s skill set.
Metadata categorizes and adds history
Auditors may also inquire about a document’s origins: when a document was created, who created it, who scanned it and when, what kind of document it is, and whether it has any related documents or transactions. Tracking down a document’s history is quite time-consuming if there is no metadata. Most documents created on a computer have at least some form of metadata tags (date, file type, and creator, at a minimum), but scanned documents have almost no metadata tags. Metadata tagging can be speeded up through automation, but like OCR scanning, expert customization is needed to make the automation effective and accurate.
Clearly, in any regulated business, it makes good sense to build a searchable, categorized document database that supports compliance. But it’s complicated. And a less-than-expertly created database is unreliable, and often unnecessarily expensive. Follow the advice of Inc. Magazine to find a skilled, experienced vendor to take your enterprise through the document conversion process:
- Talk to a vendor’s former employees
- Talk to a vendor’s customers who have provided testimonials
- Look at employee reviews
- Think like a journalist doing investigative research
With a well-designed and compliant digital document database in place, you can spend your time making your business productive and profitable.
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Although the federal government has for many years urged telecommuting to ease Washington’s notorious commuter traffic, the snowstorms of 2010 were the precipitating event which created the Telework Enhancement Act, requiring federal agencies to establish telework policies. Nearly a decade later, has it made a difference?
The GSA has led the way in transitioning to telework, with almost all employees scheduling desk time via a hoteling reservation system. As reported in the New York Times, the former bureaucratic cube farm has given way to the wide open look of a Silicon Valley start-up, with collaborative teams clustered together.
Following the GSA’s lead, the Department of Homeland Security, the Patent and Trademark Office, Fish and Wildlife, and the Department of Agriculture have put telework policies into action. Now that the telework policy has been operating for several years, the Office of Personnel Management’s most recent report, surveying 89 federal agencies, shows some interesting trends:
- 42% of all federal employees, or nearly one million workers, are eligible for telework.
- Situational telework (such as working at home to concentrate on a big project) is the most common type of telework, followed by regularly-scheduled telework.
- Although many agencies do not have a way to calculate the budget impact of telework, those that do track telework costs found that telework saved $30 million annually.
- Agencies had many goals for their teleworking programs, but the most often cited was real estate cost reduction.
And the real estate cost savings have added up. The Department of Homeland Security estimates savings of $55 million in leased space. Fish and Wildlife, a smaller organization, will save $3 million in rent reduction.
Telework presents challenges for any agency. Organizational culture is re-shaped when a telework policy is instituted, and open-plan offices require a new etiquette. Physical space is also re-shaped; a lack of offices and reduced overall square footage require facilities designers and managers to get creative with office furnishings. Flexibility is fundamental to a successful telework policy, and flexible furnishings fit well into the new interiors, giving agency facilities managers a variety of options in the way they use their open-plan office space. Designers are choosing flexible, adaptive workstations, mobile filing pedestals, and modular cabinetry that can be rearranged as staff comes and goes.
Digital document management is also helping with the new telework policies. Agencies’ document conversion programs and digital document procedures permit their teleworking staff to access needed information from almost anywhere.
With such significant cost savings as reported by the OPM, teleworking is here to stay for federal agencies. As more and more agencies adopt teleworking policies, adaptive furnishings are a valuable solution in real estate right-sizing.
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Rules and regulations – no matter how you feel about them, most of them began as good intentions, and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is no exception. Providing equal access is a laudable goal, and that includes digital information access for those with physical or neurological challenges. In 1997, Section 508 was added to the Act to address the growing importance of digital documents. It mandates e-document accessibility within federal agencies. But making e-documents accessible is easier said than done.
Document conversion is a major part of the Sec. 508 challenge. Changing a paper document into a digital document doesn’t automatically make it easier for the visually impaired to read, and a simple PDF doesn’t fulfill the Sec. 508 requirements. To make a PDF adaptable to accessibility programs, the document must be properly tagged with additional information. These tags may include descriptors for visual items (photos, charts, etc.) for text-to-audio translators, or cues for automatic text enlargement.
Adding this kind of “intelligence” to scanned documents entails encoding via specialized software, and man-hours of quality control to ensure that the encoding is correct. With budgets already strained, acquiring software and additional personnel can be out of the question for many federal agencies. To complicate matters, there is a wide degree of latitude in compliance, and a compliant document in one agency may not be compliant within another agency.
A more cost-effective solution is to look outside the agency to a document conversion specialist. Conversion service providers with specific experience in creating Sec. 508-compliant digital documents can take the burden of acquisition and management off the shoulders of agency personnel. When agencies hand off document compliance to an outside vendor, they can keep their attention on their mission instead of regulatory compliance, while still offering equal accessibility to all Americans.