Government contractors are working to embrace a permanent hybrid workforce that brings many challenges still to be solved, even with the benefits being recognized and realized.
One of the more interesting phenomena of the COVID 19 pandemic is how it has disrupted common business practices and accelerated changes across the market.
In conversations we’ve had with a rage of executives, they have shared how their companies have rapidly adopted teleconferencing and collaboration tools to enable remote work and how the pandemic has made them change how they deliver solutions to their customers.
Many industries are now deep into the phase of where what was once thought of as a set of contingency plans is now business as usual.
With that as a backdrop, we recently gathered a group of executives to discuss what they see as the permanent changes wrought by the pandemic, including the technologies they are investing in and what it means to have a hybrid workforce.
To facilitate this discussion, we operated under Chatham House rules. The conversation was on the record but not for individual or company attribution. See the sidebar at the end of this article for a list of the executives who took part in the discussion.
One of the bigger issues the industry faces is striking the right balance between remote work and being in the office. These executives see clear advantages to both.
“The workforce right now as a group will probably never come back to the office full-time because we’ve learned so much through the process,” one executive said.
Another executive agreed but added this caveat: “You might get a little more done if you’re all sitting together because you have those interactions that you didn’t expect to have."
Creating personal connections doesn’t happen as naturally when people are connecting remotely. Managers must be more intentional in how they bring people together, several participants said.
“Overnight we went to remote work, and we made sure people had the technology to support that, but now the dust has settled, and we have to ask, how are we managing people? Do people feel included,” an executive said.
That participant shared how their company has been holding virtual happy hours and other types of calls where talk about work isn’t allowed.
“It’s been a great way to get to know each other and know each other better than before,” said that executive.
The challenge of building a common culture and making connections with workers who aren’t in the office isn’t entirely new. Before the pandemic, most contractor employees worked at customer sites and rarely came to the company’s offices.
But the scale is different now with the blend full-time remote, hybrid workers and workers on customer sites.
The implications are broad. For example, an executive with a consulting firm said that career development will change. In the past, when you either had employees in the office or on the customer site, it was easier to move people in and out of teams.
“How do you do that career rotation,” an executive asked rhetorically. “It gets a lot more complicated.”
Many companies are still trying to answer that question, but this group of executives believes the positives of a remote workforce outweigh the negatives.
“In the old model your career may have been limited because you lived in Washington or you didn’t live in Washington,” one participant said. “Now, maybe you live in Washington state and the project is in New York. You get up early and log on. Avenues are open now that you didn’t have before.”
In some ways the power dynamic has shifted toward employees.
“You really are bringing the job to the employee, rather than the employee to the job,” one participant said.
“Companies have to adjust and meet the employee where they are at,” another said.
The era of a distributed workforce is only just beginning. These executives expect that emerging technologies such as 5G and edge computing will only bring more depth and capabilities to the remote workforce.
One executive's company is experimenting with virtual reality because of the limits of a flat-screen teleconference interaction.
Management can be a challenge in this environment and particularly for line managers.
“We’ve had to do training on how to lead a team that isn’t sitting next to you,” a participant said. “How do you measure outputs? How do you let go a little bit?”
In come cases, managers have come back and said remote management isn’t for them and have been moved to other roles.
The hybrid workforce also makes setting objectives and establishing common goals more important. You can unintentionally create competing goals with a remote workforce, one executive said.
“Competitive goals may not feel as competitive when you are face-to-face and have human interactions,” that executive said.
“But when you are remote and different teams have different goals and objectives, there can be some negative attributes.”
The group we convened emphasized the importance of how goals are set and how to make individuals and the team successful.
"I think that is a shift for industry especially when you look at sales goals and things like that,” an executive said.
“We all have revenue goals and different things but when you look at your program managers, you have to rethink things,” another said. “It’s really brought more recognition of the value of the team approach.”
All participants agreed that the hybrid workforce is a permanent fixture, there were some differing opinions about work that should primarily be done in the office. The most common example presented was proposal writing.
Several executives said they build proposals remotely. Others felt it was just too hard to be effective.
“Anything as critical as a proposal, we get people in the room,” an executive said. “It’s too hard relationship-wise when you bring in new people. Maybe you have new engineers or new business development folks.”
New people aren’t familiar enough with the company culture and “trying to do that remotely is just too complex,” that participant said.
This company is very supportive of remote work and is hiring engineers, for example, who can work from just about anywhere.
But for when proposal time rolls around, the same executive said “we pull the team in to the office with safety protocols in place so the team can really collaborate."
Companies are evolving to this new work environment and so is customer to some extent. For example, some customers still want their contractors to be within a 50-mile radius of the office.
But several executives said they see more customers embracing outcome-based contracts, where the measurables aren’t predicated by the number of people on site or hours worked but on what is delivered.
“It is a difficult move for anyone to make so we need to come in and say, we understand what you’re doing and here’s how we’ll get you there,” an executive said.
Some opportunities to do this exist on contracts that are already awarded.
“The government is looking for industry to really drive this process forward,” another executive said.
Patricia Blevins, senior vice president of cloud, IT, cyber and network solutions, CACI International
Cameron Chereh, CTO and VP of engineering, Dell Technologies Federal Systems
Timothy Cooke, president and CEO, ASI Government
David Cummins, senior vice president, citizen services business group, Serco
Paul Dillahay, CEO, NCI Information Systems
Aranya Ghatak, CIO, Vectrus
Sam Gordy, chief operating officer, BigBear.AI
John Griffin, VP, federal channel and SI sales, Dell Technologies Federal Systems
Michael King, chief growth officer, Peraton
Stu Kippelman, senior vice president and CIO, Parsons
John Ludecke, VP and general manager, General Dynamics IT
Kristen Vaughan, operations growth platform lead, Accenture Federal Services
Wendy VanWickle, chief business operations officer, Parsons
NOTE: Washington Technology Editor-in-Chief Nick Wakeman led the roundtable discussion. The February virtual gathering was underwritten by Dell Technologies, but both the substance of the discussion and the published article are strictly editorial products. Neither Dell nor any of the participants had input beyond their comments.