Federal Experts’ Tips for Effectively Managing Remote Teams

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Whether permanent or as part of a contingency plan, teleworking requires a combination of culture changes and technology.

The spread of the coronavirus means federal employees might see at least some telework time over the coming weeks and months. For agencies where working remotely is not the norm, it can be difficult to quickly shift workloads from the office to employees’ homes.

The key, according to experts, is fielding the right technology and fostering the right culture.

“The successful incorporation of telework and ‘social distancing’ in [continuity of operations] and emergency planning will allow the federal government to continue functioning efficiently and effectively, while ensuring the health and safety of employees,” Office of Personnel Management Director Dale Cabaniss wrote in a memo to agency leaders Saturday. “Agency [continuity of operations] plans should have telework fully incorporated so that as many employees as possible are working during a [continuity of operations] activation.”

Under the latest guidance, federal employees can be approved to telework if they are under quarantine protocols but are not showing symptoms; if employees are showing symptoms of COVID-19, they would be classified as sick and granted sick leave. 

Current government policy says employees caring for family members under quarantine need to use paid or unpaid leave options. However, the latest OPM guidance offers agency leaders some discretion to allow telework under ad hoc agreements.

The OPM guidance instructs agency heads to “immediately review their current telework policies” and create “ad hoc” policies for employees that do not already have written telework agreements.

As lead officials craft these policies, there are resources available that are tailored specifically to the federal sector.

Per OPM’s latest guidance, it is incumbent upon agencies to provide the right level of technology to enable employees to work from home.

“It is important for an agency to have a solid technology infrastructure established to support a high level and volume of connectivity, so employees can work seamlessly from their alternate locations—e.g., home—and maintain established records and security requirements,” the guidance states.

The RAND Corporation, a nonprofit that conducts research on issues of public interest, published a paper in 2018 that addresses specific telework concerns for the intelligence community and other federal agencies and programs that handle sensitive data. RAND researchers developed the paper while working with the Human Development Directorate at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

Along with policy, legal, security, financial and cultural considerations, the paper delves into the technology required to make telework possible. While technology is an obvious necessity when employees are working remotely, when it comes to sensitive workloads, some widespread technologies aren’t suitable.

“For example, certain file-sharing capabilities, video conferencing, and data-transfer capabilities are all technically feasible and commercially available but may not be available to intelligence personnel because agencies have deemed these capabilities too risky to use,” the paper reads. “Agencies can review their approaches toward collaborative technologies that enable employees to work off-site by weighing the risk of using these technologies against the costs of not using them and by considering how improvements to agency policies and training could allow certain technologies to be used safely.”

Agencies can also use monitoring tools to ensure a baseline of security and prevent insider threats, RAND researchers wrote.

RAND identified three technologies central to enabling telework, even for security-minded agencies. These include remote log-on, including a virtual private network, or VPN, to enable access to controlled unclassified information, and collaboration tools, either commercial off-the-shelf messaging apps or more secure intra-agency communication tools.

Researchers also recommended establishing a protocol for transferring files across IT systems.

“Intelligence personnel who rely on classified computing systems often store their unclassified documents on classified systems. This becomes a hurdle to remote work because employees are unable to remotely access these files,” they wrote. “This hurdle can be overcome by instituting responsive transfer processes—subject to multilevel approval to ensure continued security—to efficiently move files between classified and unclassified systems.”

Some of that will have to be done manually by employees in the office with access to classified systems tapped to assist their colleagues.

Outside of those specific needs, RAND researchers also offered a more general overview of the kinds of technology considerations agencies should focus on:

  • Allowing employees access to their agencies’ unclassified intranet, email and other unclassified information to do their jobs.
  • Providing access to collaboration tools for all employees irrespective of location so they can talk and share information with each other.
  • Providing policies and guidelines about the use of unclassified technologies.
  • Determining which devices agencies will issue to employees, such as government laptops or common access card readers, and any associated costs.

Beyond technology, the other major obstacle to an effective remote workplace is culture. For managers, that means ensuring employees are productive. For employees, it means being able to do their work fully and efficiently. For everyone involved, it means fostering trust and reliable lines of communication.

The team at 18F, the digital consultancy based within the General Services Administration, has been working on these issues for some time.

As a remote-first organization that parachutes in to programs and projects across government for short stints, “The ability to quickly form strong remote-first teams is important to our success,” Alex Soble, an 18F consulting engineer, wrote in a March 5 blog post.

18F compiled a set of best practices in an October 2015 blog authored by then-Communications and Content Strategist Melody Kramer and then-UX Developer Michelle Hertzfeld. Per the post, the most effective remote teams:

  • Proactively communicate. Team members of 18F often send short progress updates throughout the day even though they aren’t necessarily required. 
  • Use words. If coworkers need to discuss what they see on their screens, it’s important to be as descriptive as possible. “For example, we encourage folks to use titles of page components and other descriptors to help collaborators more easily locate what a person is talking about (the blue “Get Started” button with the white text, below and to the right of the hero image, etc.),” the post says.
  • Assume people are working asynchronously. “We never assume that people are available the minute that we need them,” the post says. Instead, team members document their days so coworkers who might be checking on things later in the day can get up to speed. 
  • Are patient. The 18F team works on different schedules and from different time zones, so the team gives time for its members to answer questions unless an immediate decision is needed. 
  • Keep records. “Even after meetings, what’s discussed and decided should be summarized into [GitHub] issues and notes for those who were not present or just to keep a record for the future. Good practices for remote teams and between teams overall” the post says. 

Kramer and Hertzfeld also urged remote teams to make liberal use of screen-sharing tools such as Google Hangouts, appear.in and Screenhero and to err on the side of overcommunicating.

Possibly the most important advice for everyone involved comes from the OPM guidance: “Managers, employees and organizations must remain flexible and adapt to the changing environment.”