Episode 36

So What? Federal News Roundup on Remote Work with Elizebeth Varghese

Join us on Tech Transforms Federal News Round-up segment, So What? Hosted by Carolyn Ford and Tracy Bannon. This week, we talk to Elizebeth Varghese, Global and Americas Leader – HR Transformation Client Offerings at IBM about one of the biggest topics in federal news: remote work. Listen in to find out how agencies can implement a smarter protocol, how remote work impacts the trust equation and the role technology can play in the workforce culture.

Episode Table of Contents

  • [00:40] The Future of Work for Federal Employees
  • [11:28] Work-Life Balance Expectations in a Remote Work
  • [19:01] Big Push in In-Person Protocol
  • [26:12] Do You Need a Home Office for Remote Work?
  • [32:01] Provide Options to Persuade People to Stay and Junk Remote Work
  • [39:04] The People Who Are Not Approving Remote Work

Episode Links and Resources

The Future of Work for Federal Employees

Carolyn: This month, we're hosting Elizebeth Varghese, Global & America's Leader: Client Offerings in Talent and HR Strategy at IBM. And outside of IBM she's an active board member at South Asian Youth Action, a nonprofit providing after-school programming, education, and college support.

She was recognized as Global Top 100 Influencer in HR for 2020. And we are glad to have you joining us today, Elizebeth, to discuss returning to the office, the great resignation, and companies potentially switching to a four-day workweek hybrid, all of that. Welcome Elizebeth, how are you?

Elizebeth: Great, thank you so much, Carolyn. Wonderful and delighted to be here. Great to be back on here with Tracy as well, friend from a couple of years ago as we've been going through some of these pandemic podcasts. So thank you for inviting me and I am looking forward to this.

Carolyn: Yes, well this one's going to be a fun one and it might get a little heated. I've already seen some stuff on LinkedIn. I'm like, oh, that gets my blood boiling about returning to the office. And I want to start off with a question, there's an article called "Three ways the future of work must change for federal employees."

The article states that at the end of the day, we need to have an IT and HR Alliance. This was due to exceptional communication between the agency's chief information officer and HR functions. In your experience, is the relationship between IT and HR something government agencies need to improve on? And industry too?

Does the Relationship Between IT and HR Need Improvement?

Elizebeth: Now what we've seen, the pandemic is highlighted so nothing new. This was happening for a while. I have to preface it with that. Because I think in lots of our conversations we hear this thing about, hey, this is what the pandemic caused.

The pandemic caused a lot of suffering and hardship for many people, but it highlighted things that were in play for many years. And the fact the intersection of HR data and how IT's using it and accessing it has been an eternal problem. It's been going on for many years.

But things came to a head when we were forced to be virtual in the federal sector and in the commercial sector. People realized that that intersection hadn't really been explored. It hadn't been addressed. It hadn't been managed in a sufficiently coherent fashion.

There were a couple of reasons for that and some folks in the federal sector or commercial, the reason I say that is because this is a universal problem. It's not endemic just to one sector and we should take that. But when the pandemic hit, there were lots of tropes. Even before that around what can be done remotely, what data can be accessed in what fashion, what is secure and not.

What the pandemic highlighted is that those issues were not really based upon real cybersecurity issues or access issues or single sign-on issues. They were really managed or impacted by cultural constructs of where work can be done.

A great example of this is if you think about our friends on Wall Street, you could not do investment banking or trading from remote work. It's impossible. There were so many reasons for that, all of them good.

Subcultures and Subgroups During Remote Work

Elizebeth: But come March 15th monitors were shipped to basements in Westport and patios in Westchester county and Wall Street just continued. So we really found that it wasn't, can it be done? It was more of do we want it to be done?

I think that is the question that was highlighted through the pandemic in the federal sector as well. Are we really understanding what technology can do and are we using it to really manage HR data? So that's kind of what I've seen. Tracy, would love your thoughts too. I know you've been working at this intersection for a while as well.

Tracy: It struck me as strange when the pandemic hit because I've had remote teams. I think it was 2009, 2010 was completely remote work with global teams, everybody geographically dispersed. So it was first nature to me, but I never realized with other IT workers how much they did not get that opportunity.

So when we got into the pandemic and I realized different organizations. I changed my job just before the pandemic and what I was starting to realize is how campus-centric or office-centric some of the cultures could be.

Even inside a big organization you can have subcultures, subgroups that really do form these tight bonds. Whether it's going out to lunch or whether it's meeting up at the water cooler or what have you, there is or was this sense. It was a cultural sense that they built together. And that was hard for them, hard for everyone to learn, how do I emulate that? How do I replace that now that I am on remote work?

How People Collaborate in a Remote Work Setup

Tracy: So Elizebeth, if you and I are going to walk to the water cooler and we were going to make a deal or we were going to talk about something or some new topic that we want to research, how did people do that? Or how did they start to do that during the pandemic? What did some of the research show on how people are engaging now?

Elizebeth: People have engaged, as you said, remotely even before the pandemic. There were virtual teams and there were lots of collaboration tools. But I’ll give you an example. The experience that I have as an IBM employee, much like you Tracy we have employees all around the world working on very complex things.

People without having ever met each other or worked in the same room and that was really happening through technologies. Whether it's Slack or chat messages or online Wiki forums. Or what we call Lighthouse at IBM where we share intellectual capital. There were lots of different ways people were connecting.

So what happened in the pandemic is that the companies that had some of the cultural constructs around it is okay to engage that way. Or it's common to make friendships or have friendships evolve over distances and remotely, found that they just moved seamlessly into that.

The companies that struggled with that, again, were less about having the technology and more about people being used to engaging, forming relationships, forming friendships and collaborative pods without technology.

The Question to Ask to See if Remote Work Can Be Done

Elizebeth: So again, it's less about the technology and more about how we work together. And I think we see this, I have teenagers, now they're used to texting versus making a phone call. Now if you are used to texting, it's a lot easier to never have a phone, you don't need the call function. So it's really a habit, it's a way we think about how we communicate, how we are comfortable communicating. I think that is a learned behavior.

So I've learned to text more because I have teenagers. I call them when I need to but you get my drift. I think similarly in organizations, if you're able to provide different channels and different ways of access, we find that people actually learn and embrace them. They do make deals, they plan vacations without having met each other.

We've had experiences where we had kids come in fresh from undergrad or grad, working together in collaborative pods using technology, planning ski trips. Never met each other but a great group that works together. They're all partnering and operating as a team.

So it can be done. The question is who chooses to be in that situation? Or who's comfortable with that kind of maybe job interview process? Lots of people are taking jobs in the pandemic and after without ever physically meeting their teams. So I think that would be my challenge to all of us, not the why but the why not? Why can't we do it?

Technology Etiquette in Remote Work Setup

Carolyn: So I'm like you, Tracy, I've worked remote. I live in Utah and I've supported teams that support the federal government for the past 15 years. So I've worked remote since 2010. Most of the time going into the office occasionally which I always said, when I went into the office, those were the days I didn't get anything done.

And what was interesting for me, so this comes back to the culture thing, when everybody went remote was the abuse of the technology. What I mean by that is I felt like we needed to train ourselves in etiquette. Don't text me at three o'clock in the morning. I had to train myself. That's my responsibility to make sure my phone is on silent, do not disturb when I go to bed.

But also I was so good and am so good at getting in the zone and really focusing. The Slack messaging and stuff, I nearly lost my mind when everybody went remote. Because it was constant barrage, constant interruption and there was no time.

You had to get into the zone, into the flow. And it's definitely gotten better, but what do you think about that? Elizebeth first, do you have anything to say about that? And then Tracy I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Elizebeth: That's a great example because actually personally I have the same experience and I think lots of my clients do. Because one, if you're across different time zones, everyone's Slacking you when they're working. So I had to learn, me personally, I had to turn the notifications off. I had to discipline myself to not reply in the moment, but wait and even if I looked at the texts. Because I couldn't bear to not look at it, but tell myself not to.

And in some instances I think also, be cognizant. That sometimes we are responding or we are sending a text because I don't want to forget I'm working now and I make a note of it. But the person at the other end is receiving it and thinking, oh my God, I have to reply. It's an unseen, unexpected pressure that we may not be conscious about. Because we are not doing it to get a response back.

Work-Life Balance Expectations in a Remote Work

Elizebeth: So I think some of those things again require a different way of working. Like you're saying, when do we turn on, when do we turn off? And how much do we really listen to the implications of really having a remote workforce? Both in terms of whether you're in a different time zone or different work-life balance expectations.

Tracy: For a long time I have counseled those coming into their careers to be very specific about when they answer emails. Now I know that the first time that they get their corporate phone and it's connected that they're looking at it.

I realized that I had a responsibility to not send weekend emails. As a leader, they were immediately responding and I realized that I also had to train myself. Now I still do queue things up when I have time. I have had the blessing of being able to have some latitude with I'm going to focus a little bit more this evening. Because I'm going to go and do something with my daughter tomorrow morning. Had some flexibility.

So I have also trained myself to be very specific in my emails. I'm sending this tonight, please don't read or take action till tomorrow. I let them know this is not a rush. If I need somebody, they also know that I'm like a bloodhound and I will find them. We will get ahold of each other if it's truly something that is that much of an emergency.

Tailoring Remote Work Culture to Team Dynamics

Tracy: But you brought up another good point. Prior to the pandemic, except for very close work relationships, those work spouses, I did not text with anybody in the workforce. I would Slack, I would use any of the other tools that were available to me but not that.

When the pandemic started, I have two phones now. I never thought that I would be the two phone person. The work phone and the life phone. But I do. One of the reasons that that has become important is the ability, to your point Carolyn, to turn it off and put it over there because I'm now leaving this part.

Now that all sounds like that I have a really great division between career and life. For me, it's very intermingled, I'm thinking about it all the time. And so if I know that Carolyn is thinking about it. I might feel okay sending you a Slack message or a text message at six or seven at night. This is when I know that you're out there taking a walk or something.

So there is a bit of tailoring after you learn just the culture of it, your individual teams and people. But it's not coming in with rigid expectations, you've got to build that together because each team dynamic is so dramatically different.

Hybrid Work Model

Carolyn: Yes. So I want to talk about, the push now is people coming back to the office. So we talked about this already a little bit and there's a bunch of different models that are being proposed.

I want to talk about the hybrid work style first. There's an article, it's called "Hybrid work for many is messy and exhausting." And we'll put links to all of these too in the show notes. But it says that about 60% of offices will adopt a hybrid work policy this year. So Elizebeth, what policy changes have you seen within IBM or otherwise surrounding the hybrid work model? It sounds like you guys were already hybrid, to some extent.

Elizebeth: Our IBM HR folks are the best folks to answer this question. They've done amazing work over the years for a truly hybrid model because we've had different variations and policies.

What we've seen across the board is that organizations are making different kinds of policies. We have seen a trend definitely around the organizations that traditionally did not like remote work. Lots of organizations in financial services are expecting people to be back in the office. Expecting people to be back for a defined number of days and a defined set of days.

So people are being quite prescriptive about that, so we're definitely seeing that. And as we've seen in the news, there's also been quite a bit of pushback on some of those prescriptive policies. I think some of that is going to continue to evolve. I don't think that has been completely sorted out.

The Optionality of Work in Every Industry

Elizebeth: Now I think in the case of the federal government and really honestly every industry, what we're finding is that the optionality of work has increased. We've seen this in news. The smartest kids who were looking at going to become bankers in a particular well-known organization. I won't name. They are maybe thinking, you know what, I don't really care as much for the hours of work and the expectation that I will be in the office so I'm not going to do that. I'm going to go to a startup.

Now that plays out in the federal government as well. It has for many years in terms of how do we compete for the best talent? And there's a reason the government does need the best and brightest for practice of national security or science and space exploration, a variety of things.

The pivot has really then come to be more around, what's the best way to attract the best talent in our industry? And that's becoming the lens by which policy making is happening.

So the one other thing I just wanted to mention, there's an organization again I won't name. But as they looked at the variety of labs that they had across the country, pre-pandemic everybody had to be in the labs doing their work in their teams. But the pandemic required them to obviously be remote and the serendipitous outcome of that was that they found there was a lot more cross-pollination and sharing of information and collaboration across labs which they hadn't had historically. Because people tended to work with their own physical teams.

The Real Estate You Need to Give Up for Remote Work

Elizebeth: I say that because I think organizations have recognized that there's been much good to come out of the remote work and that the return to work answer is not a simplistic one of just get back into your offices. I'm curious to see what you both have seen too. It's really been an evolving strategy for most people, I think.

Tracy: I think that quite a number of people are asking why. If I'm interviewing with you or if I already work with you, just talk to me about the why. Some firms and some government agencies have a tremendous real estate footprint that they own, that they're not renting. They can't give that space up. So if you own that and you have a dramatic dependency on that, what do you do?

We're seeing that with higher education right now as well. They've got huge campuses and they found out that we don't necessarily need all the students on campus. What's the balance, what's the change off between it?

So I'm finding as we're interviewing, when we talk about work styles, when we talk about hybrid, when we talk about the possibility of being a full teleworker, that's the government term. It came around, I think it became law in 2010 that you could be a teleworker if you could show productivity.

Big Push in In-Person Protocol

Tracy: But as you are trying to talk it through, there are so many people asking me, well, what is the advantage that I have of being in person? What's the advantage that we will...

About the Podcast

Show artwork for Tech Transforms, sponsored by Dynatrace
Tech Transforms, sponsored by Dynatrace
Tech Transforms talks to some of the most prominent influencers shaping government technology.

About your hosts

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Mark Senell

Mark is Vice President of Federal at Dynatrace, where he runs the Federal business and has built out the growth and expansion of the Federal sales team providing unparalleled observability, automation, and intelligence all in one platform. Prior to joining Dynatrace, Mark held senior executive sales positions at IBM, Forcepoint, and Raytheon. Mark has spent the last twenty years supporting the Federal mission across customers in the U.S. Department of Defense, Intelligence Community, and Civilian Federal agencies.
In his spare time, Mark is an avid golfer and college basketball enthusiast. Mark earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Virginia.
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Carolyn Ford

Carolyn Ford is passionate about connecting with people to learn how the power of technology is impacting their lives and how they are using technology to shape the world. She has worked in high tech and federal-focused cybersecurity for more than 15 years. Prior to co-hosting Tech Transforms, Carolyn launched and hosted the award-winning podcast "To The Point Cybersecurity".