Focusing the Public Sector in a Telework World


To manage the COVID-19 pandemic, the public sector faces critical decisions it isn’t used to facing, and it must make them under considerable time pressure without full knowledge of what will happen over the long term. Yet even during a crisis, citizens expect safety and other essential services.

On top of it all, the nation’s 2.1 million federal employees—spread across law enforcement, diplomatic functions, education, the military, and more—might not know how the nature of their work will change given the outbreak. Suddenly, some public agencies have found themselves working remotely full time, perhaps for the first time. Although about half the federal workforce was eligible to telework on average one or two days a week (for snow days or sporadically) when President Trump took office, few did it more than a day or two per week.

So, how does the public sector continue to do its critical work and safeguard the population amid the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic?

Use SCARF® to your advantage

In these disruptive times, NLI’s research suggests leaders should be maximizing employees’ sense of certaintyautonomy, and relatedness to make public agencies highly productive and help employees adjust when switching over to telework.

These three domains come from NLI’s SCARF® Model of social threat and reward, which captures five areas where humans tend to feel motivated or demotivated. Those domains include status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness. The middle three, in particular, tend to be missing during disruptive times—we feel uncertain, helpless, and alone.

With that in mind, public-sector leaders can use the SCARF® Model to make working life a bit more manageable.

For instance:

  • If you manage people who spend most of the day answering phones, such as call-center workers, try scheduling regular meetings through video chat and creating explicit team goals to create alignment and relatedness.
  • For government officials who are used to the rigidity of a strict schedule, give people some flexibility and autonomy over their calendars, especially in light of all the school closures.
  • And for those working with sensitive (even if unclassified) material, look to provide mechanisms that give people the certainty that their data will be secure and uncompromised when making the switch from in-person work to telework. Also, remind employees how their behaviors increase the certainty that the data will be secure.

Benefits that last

In each of these cases, it’s equally important to communicate directly and often, so people can feel as empowered, acknowledged, and certain as possible. We don’t know how long the disruption will last, but there’s a good chance things will eventually subside, or at least settle into a new normal.

Those who acknowledge this and work to foster autonomy, certainty, and relatedness in the meantime will likely be much more successful than those who expect people to suppress their emotions and social needs. And with any luck, these teams will have accomplished more during the crisis and will have fostered healthier work habits that will carry over into stabler, more certain times.

Author: Jonathan Grinstein, Ph.D.

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