How the Government Shifted Its Onboarding Strategy During the Pandemic


Despite a largely remote workforce, the government hasn’t stopped hiring employees, especially those performing critical mission functions.

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically changed how most of the millions of federal employees and contractors perform their work, and it has forced alterations to the way agencies recruit and onboard talent.

Yet agencies have adapted quickly to the new normal, shifting recruiting and onboarding strategies in line with policy guidance and recommendations from the government’s human resources arm—the Office of Personnel Management—to meet mission demand.

“So far using just our onboarding solution through the end of July, we’ve had 211,000 people onboarded this fiscal year,” Bridget Dongarra, the program manager for OPM’s USA Staffing system, said during a Sept. 24 event hosted by Government Executive and Nextgov.

In March, after it became clear the COVID-19 pandemic would not be short-lived, Dongarra said OPM alerted agencies of various avenues they could lean on to hire during the pandemic, including direct hire authorities. In addition, she said the Department of Homeland Security issued a new, flexible version of I-9 forms new employees must complete before employment. Many agencies “adjusted” their Personal Identity Verification and Common Access Card credentialing processes, Dongarra said, “so new employees could come onboard and be issued temporary PIV cards.”

In revisiting its onboarding tasks and workflows, Dongarra said the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Veterans Health Administration was able to onboard 23,000 new employees between March and May alone. The rapid ramp-up helped the agency to meet a significant uptick in demand for veteran health care services.

The Department of Health and Human Services, too, leaned on existing HR tools to augment its workforce in its response to COVID-19. Dongarra said HHS recruiters used resume mining features on the USAJOBS platform to pour through 1.5 million shared resumes to look for particular work experience useful to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“A lot of flexibilities and guidance changes happened early on in order to make sure people could onboard virtually,” Dongarra said.

Innovations in onboarding haven’t been limited to civilian government.

As the Pentagon expanded its telework capabilities for defense and military personnel, the Defense Department also obtained a waiver from OPM to continue filling its ranks. The effort began with the Defense Digital Service, a team of technologists who address various technical problems across the Defense Department. Known for taking novel approaches to problems, DDS rethought how new hires should take the mandatory oath of office, opting to allow new hires to virtually take their oaths from the comforts of their homes. So far, DDS has brought in 30 new team members since March, said CJ Johnson, DDS’ talent lead. Beyond that, Johnson said DDS helped remotely bring on more than 500 new hires across the Pentagon during the same time span. Many of those employees are providing vital functions to various missions across the Defense Department.

“It really does allow everyone across the board to still be able to do the work they need to do, bring on the talent they desire to bring on and help shape and mold whole systems,” said Johnson, who added DDS looks to “humanize” the hiring process whenever possible.

Prior to COVID-19, Johnson said DDS attended several major tech conferences nationwide to recruit talent. Johnson said DDS has shifted its recruiting strategy to the virtual world, engaging with potential recruits in various digital conferences like DEFCON. And she’s upped the amount of time DDS spends on social platforms like LinkedIn to increase the number of touchpoints.

“Our team has still built and put together a great virtual experience where we’re able to engage with dozens of candidates,” Johnson said. “We’re still recruiting in all the places and spaces, we’re just doing it in a digital way.”

It’s not all bad, either. Johnson said now “everyone’s home” when she calls them to discuss potential openings. 

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