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In mid-July, we had a piece published in GovExec looking at how Federal leaders could optimize their deployment of 2021 budgeted monies before the September 30 year-end. At the time, the mood was cautious optimism, buoyed by the United States’ strong vaccination program and the coronavirus reasonably under control. Looking ahead to robust work programs and major directional shifts related to climate, infrastructure, health, digital, and education, we recommended that leaders use this time to invest in their people and position them for the greatest possible success in the new fiscal year. We said that:

“Investing in employees today is essential to meeting 2022 goals as well as the objectives set in this administration’s first term. Doing the same a year from now will be too late in terms of both employee wellbeing and priority results. The pace of change is growing exponentially. While the pandemic and a year of social unrest have exacerbated the climate of change, this trend has been on a fast upward trajectory with no plateau in sight. None of us can predict what the next surprise will be, but we can prepare to respond better and be change capable.”

In just over a month, the landscape shifted considerably. The delta variant of the virus has caused an extraordinary resurgence of Covid, setting back any semblance of normal that had started to emerge. Hospitals in many states are close to being overwhelmed by the number of Covid-19 patients. A rapidly growing list of Federal agencies are instituting vaccine mandates, and many who reopened their workplace doors have placed their plans on hold. Federal employees with young children, like other parents in the workforce, are increasingly concerned for their safety and worried about another period of virtual schooling.

Does our recommendation to invest in employees via targeted capability-building and intentional organizational design and culture still hold in this increasingly chaotic environment?

The answer is YES, but with some nuances. The quickly evolving situation over the past month reinforces the central point that the pace of change is accelerating, the changes are unpredictable, and change capability – at the individual, team and organization levels – is at the core of agencies’ ability to cope and thrive. But details of what investments to introduce and how to implement them may need to shift. Federal Leaders have been asking:

  • What do we need to do to keep our employees safe amidst changing health and safety guidelines? How do we address mandates and policies associated with vaccines and masking? How do we safeguard the mental health of employees?

A rapidly evolving pandemic and shifting guidance emphasize the need for adaptability and clear and transparent communication (because what we say today may be different than what we say tomorrow).

  • How can we get the most value from the technology investments we’ve made during the pandemic? And what opportunities exist to rethink and repurpose our physical infrastructure?

Rethinking and repurposing infrastructure will require letting go of some long-held beliefs about how and where work is done and how best to “manage” employees.

  • How can we realize opportunities from employee attrition and new telework capabilities to enhance diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) practices across our workforce?

Greater focus on flexibility creates opportunities for increased diversity (who can actively engage in work).

These are not easy questions. But they represent the real opportunities to come back better as we all navigate the current chaos, look beyond the pandemic, and recognize that change is a primary constant. Investing now in your employees will help you build change capability across your organization. Some areas of focus to consider as a starting point:

  • Aligning leadership to a unified point of view on the opportunities emerging from pandemic-forced changes and turmoil
  • Generating true urgency that fully engages employees around your agency’s most meaningful opportunities
  • Accelerating service delivery innovations
  • Deploying L&D programs to strengthen managers’ change leadership skills
  • Defining and integrating sustainable DE&I practices by joining employee education and accelerated application of working in new ways to reinforce behaviors.

Fiscal year 2022 remains crucially important for advancing the administration’s goals. Expectations of the Federal workforce to deliver have not changed. Leaders have a window to invest wisely and set their organizations on the strongest course for the coming year.

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