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The future of work in government

Insights In Depth: The future of government

The pandemic redefined our understanding of where and how jobs had to be done. DHS’s Angie Bailey and NASA’s Elizabeth Kolmstetter share how their agencies are adapting to the new world of work.

Tanya: How are you feeling? I mean, really feeling? ...

SFX: "Yet another company to allow a lot more of its workers to be remote, in fact it proclaimed the nine-to-five work day is dead.” “One of things that my old bosses told me is that your advancement in your career is directly related to how close you sit to your boss.” “This is a huge transformation to the way we normally talk; it’s like walking around with a mirror hanging in front of us.”

Tanya: I’m Tanya Ott and I’ve been working from home now for more than a year, which is great. But also exhausting because it’s hard to disconnect. I’m not really going anywhere or doing anything, so … it’s work, all the time. 

SFX: “It has been a little bit overwhelming to try to kind of navigate this new space of working from home with a baby.” “If you’ve been feeling exhausted after back to back video meetings, town halls, happy hours, workouts - you’re not alone.”

Tanya: The pandemic has really pushed all of us to our limit. And government is no exception.

Seán Morris: I actually come from three generations of public servants. So, lots of military, but also first responders and various other government agencies. 

Tanya: That’s Seán Morris of Deloitte Consulting LLP. 

Seán: I’m a principal and also the chief operations officer of our government business. 

Tanya: Last year, Seán testified before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. And he basically said COVID has given government agencies the chance to completely rethink how and where their people work. 

Seán: Not just where they work, but the type of work that they do and the talent makeup that they will have in the future. 

Tanya: Seán  went to grad school with a bunch of people who ended up working in government. 

Seán: When I started in the private sector, I was handed a laptop and told to be incredibly mobile. When my very good friends started in the government, they were put behind a desk with a desktop. 

Tanya: Just a small example of the legacy of hurdles some government agencies faced when COVID hit. In those early days, agencies scrambled to respond to working in the new world. 

Seán: How does an organisation think through getting back up online once everybody literally went home from their typical workplaces? How did the technology get moved out to them? How did they interact with one another? How did they get their day-to-day done? It’s human nature in the “respond” moment to jump in with both feet, to make sure everybody is OK; to get things running again in almost I would actually call it a crisis situation in those first couple of months. 

Tanya: After responding to the immediate crisis, agencies move on to recovery. 

Seán: How do we get back to the levels of normalcy, either against the mission, against productivity, etc. What is it that we start to put in place and to adapt to in our new circumstances to get back to a level of full recovery? Many organisations and many individuals found it increasingly challenging to draw the boundaries around when work started and when work stopped. 

Tanya: The last year has challenged us, but it’s also got a lot of people inside government thinking about how they can loosen up some of the orthodoxies around work moving forwards—in other words, how to thrive. 

Seán: Thrive is really taking a step back and saying, well, what worked and what didn’t. Most importantly, what do we not need to do today that maybe we were doing previous to COVID? That’s the hardest piece, to be able to make that jump into that thrive category.

Tanya: The key to thriving in this “future of work” is building a culture that empowers employees to remain productive while also respecting boundaries. 

Seán: People are just tired. There’s the fatigue that you’ll hear about from constantly being on video chats. Organisations that are most human-centered at their core are the ones that are having those conversations about well-being and asking their colleagues for feedback on what’s working and what’s not. And using that data, that feedback data as ways to adapt the types of work that people are doing and how they’re doing it. 

Tanya: Some government agencies are already taking that leap. 

Angie: Alright, hello. I’m Angela Bailey. Most folks call me Angie. 

Tanya: Angie is the chief human capital officer for the Department of Homeland Security. 

Angie: I have a wide range of responsibility, as you can imagine—everything from labor and employee relations to hiring and recruiting, training, developing workforce health and safety. The list kind of goes on and on. … 

Tanya: DHS employs more than a quarter of a million people. … 

Angie: This is probably something folks don’t realise as well; we have horses and dogs as well that we have to take care of. 

Tanya: When we talk about the future of work, it’s easy to focus just on technologies like AI. But for Angie, it’s all about those 253,000 humans and the people they serve. It’s personal. 

Angie: I used to always think about this, when people would say to me what’s your work/life balance? That’s really assuming that it’s like this pie chart, right? 

Let me just give you a story. Many, many moons ago when my daughter was little and she was like four years old and I worked at Letterkenny Army Depot, I remember dropping her off at the day care—Letterkenny had a day care center—and I remember dropping her off and she was like literally holding on to my leg the whole way out the door, right? 

She was crying because she didn’t want me to leave her. The truth is, when I got to work, it’s not like I went, my daughter’s tears are gone and now all of a sudden I’m going to be a labor relations officer. It doesn’t work that way. I spent most of the morning feeling guilty as all get out over the fact that I dragged my daughter across the floor with her holding on to my leg ... while I’m at work and I’m trying to negotiate a contract, or I’m trying to deal with a grievance that an employee might have or a disciplinary action that a supervisor might want to take.

Tanya: We’ve been talking about work/life balance for a long time. And some government agencies like Angie’s have traditionally not done so well. 

Angie: Back then it was, “You got to figure it out. You got a job to do. You cannot worry about your child,” kind of thing. That’s where it was. Then we kind of went through this phase where we started talking about it, but it was really like considered woo-woo, right? Where it was just an H.R. thing or that’s just a soft skill—something that other people train about. Or we could have the HR specialist trained about it, but we’re not going to have our law enforcement talk about it. 

Tanya: But flash forwards to today and suddenly it’s a mission imperative. 

Angie: Because, when you think about it, our folks have to be mentally focussed and they have to also learn how to process things. For example, if it’s [how to] process rescuing a three-year-old in the desert who’s been abandoned by the drug cartel. and then go home at night and read a story to their own three-year-old. … 

Tanya: It’s easy to talk about being more holistic. But how does an agency like the Department of Homeland Security actually do it? For one, they created something called the employee and family readiness council made of employees, doctors, psychologists, family relations specialists. … 

Angie: …. which would include like our work/life specialist; we still call them that. 

Tanya: That council looks at the issues DHS employees face. Things like mental health challenges. …

Angie: We’re investing quite a bit of effort, without the stigma that’s behind it, [that] helps us recognise when somebody might be in trouble and how to get them the help that they need. 

Tanya: Financial planning skills. … 

Angie: We always think of the D.C. wages and the senior executives, but we have a whole cadre of folks. In fact, within TSA, the average salary is somewhere under $50,000 a year. So helping them learn how to have some financial planning is really important. 

Tanya: Even mindfulness training. … 

Angie: …where we are teaching them how to get their heart and their mind into coherence. In other words, if they knock on the door and someone comes to the door and flashes a cell phone, they see a cell phone. They don’t see a gun and immediately draw their own gun, kind of thing. 

I read an interesting article the other day. [The author] said, HR has gotten soft. All I hear about [are] the surveys saying that the No. 1 thing that they’re worried about now is their employees’ mental health. He was railing against that. He was saying, no, it should be about performance metrics. It should be about holding people accountable. I’m like, actually, are we still like in the Industrial Revolution? I mean, folks, I got to tell you a TSO—that’s our folks that run somebody through an airport, do the screening at the airport—a performance metric is not going to make them forget about the fact that they left their 12-year-old home alone to try to homeschool themselves while they’re off trying to make sure the drugs and guns and bad people don’t get on a plane. 

I don’t think it’s an if/and. I don’t think it’s a black and white issue. These things have to be integrated into what we’re doing so that we recognise that there is more to the person than just being a quote-unquote worker. That if we want productivity and we want these things that we say we want, that we have to recognise that they are human beings first. 

Tanya: When it comes to the future of work, government faces some challenges that the private sector doesn’t. Sure, there’s the tech—laptop versus desktop mentality. But Seán  Morris reminds us that it’s bigger than that. 

Seán: The inability of some supervisors and middle management and upper management to be comfortable in changing the way that they’ve historically gone to work, performed the work, interacted with individuals. That’s a big leap. 

Tanya: Fortunately, some agencies have already proved their ability to take giant leaps. 

Elizabeth: One of my jobs is to really try to focus on modernising our workforce and our workforce programmes.

Tanya: Elizabeth Kolmstetter works for one of the most high-tech government agencies there is.

SFX: Touchdown confirmed. Perseverance is safely on the surface of Mars. 

Elizabeth: I am currently the director of Talent, Strategy and Engagement in the Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer here at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

It has certainly been an extraordinary time and like we all know, there weren’t really precedents set for such an event as the pandemic, where we literally over a weekend went to 95% of our workforce teleworking. 

It really shifted the mindset because prepandemic, we had a very hands-on agency and we love working at our centers and for our missions and with each other. So there was a lot of like, my gosh, this can’t possibly be done unless we’re at the center together. This really opened up our mental models to doing work differently. 

Tanya: One of the things they’re doing differently is making it easier for employees [to] move around. NASA has 10 research and space centers and lots of different missions and work teams at each center. But no one could possibly know all of the opportunities that were available. Until they launched the Talent Marketplace. 

Elizabeth: This is a platform that allows more visibility into those options. What’s out there? What could I be interested in? I’m a big believer that our talent system should not be based on who you know and who knows you, but what opportunities there are and what experiences and talents you have to bring to the mission. By having a talent marketplace, we don’t ask our supervisors to know every opportunity in order to mentor or develop their employees, because they can’t possibly know everything in a large agency. 

I have already seen in the talent marketplace that people are advertising for assignments and permanent transfers and they’re open to you and you don’t have to relocate in this job. That’s very exciting because it opens up more opportunities and access to talent that we might not have had if we stayed in the center-centric model. 

Tanya: Workers may want flexibility, but sometimes, managers struggle. What has to change when you lead a team where some are on-site and others aren’t? 

Elizabeth: There’s a lot more dynamics to figure out. Do I have this meeting in the conference room if half the people are not even there physically? How do I keep them engaged in the meeting and contributing when half the people are back in the room?

There are going to be remote employees that you may never meet in person because they’re hired remotely and they’re going to be virtual through technology to your team. We have to figure out how we build the trust because there’s research, scientific research that shows that it’s a different connection that we have when we meet and we’re in person with each other versus through a video screen or a technology. So we’re already working on what kind of training and what kind of feedback we need to be giving, especially to our supervisors and managers, so that they work through and make sure their behaviours are inclusive. We are planning to gather data to see if there are any adverse effects for those employees who are remote or primarily telework that may have unintended consequences on perhaps their ability to get the next assignment, a promotion, a performance bonus, or something like that. We have to look at the data and see how that’s playing out. 

Tanya: NASA’s been working on this idea of the future of work since well before the pandemic. So … what does that look like? 

Elizabeth: Previously, where we would think about improving people and process, we’re now saying there is no people, work, or job without technology and data. So if we’re really going to embrace this digital era, we have got to think about the constructs in our typical workforce programmes, say looking at a job or a position or a career path, we have to think about how is technology, automation, data going to change that? Some of our jobs are going to be automated and those are not jobs we need anymore. So how do we move our people to the high-value work where we really do need their skills and expertise and away from the low-value work, which is going to be automated or using robots or different types of technology tools? It’s exciting because it’s really challenging a lot of the way we’ve done things, and we’ve done very well. But now we have to think about it in this future of work and that’s just a different scenario than we’ve ever experienced before. 

Angie: So today I might hire somebody that can ride a horse and can speak Spanish to try to take care of the border. 

Tanya: That’s Angie again, with the Department of Homeland Security. 

Angie: But maybe tomorrow—and tomorrow is not that far away, by the way —maybe I’m hiring somebody that sits in South Dakota and knows how to use a joystick and is using a drone to monitor the same environment that they used to monitor on a horse or an ATV. We do think about where is technology taking us? I don’t think it means that we’re going to have less DHS employees. It just means that technology is going to be integrated into what we do. 

Usually whenever I hear what’s the future of work look like, I always hear we’ll telework more. 

OK, that is such a simple answer, especially whenever we have an agency that, 80% of our agency doesn’t get to telework ... because guess what? You’re not going get cleared to go on a plane if I’m sitting at home. I have to be at the airport to clear you to get on that plane. 

You think about, if Elon Musk is correct and he puts people on Mars in 2050, what role does the United States play [in] that? Is TSA going to be on Mars? Is there going to be a Customs and Border Patrol officer up there who’s going to check you in? Who are you going to show your passport to? Right? That’s not that far away. These are the kinds of things that we sit down and talk about; we think about. That’s why I do get frustrated when people just go into the future; we’re going to be like more telework. It’s like, no, it’s going to be a whole lot more than just telework. 

Tanya: Government gets rap for being slow moving. But Seán Morris, with Deloitte’s government practice, sees plenty signs of innovation. 

Seán: What’s really fascinating to me is that when we have conversations with our clients, they have some of the most innovative things going on in government. What I tell my clients is if that three-letter agency over there can make that journey; can challenge those orthodoxies of how they’ve always done work; how their parents and their grandparents did work, I’m pretty sure we can do that in all areas of the government space and beyond. 

There are so many opportunities that are out there to rethink how we’ve done work historically and to restructure that work to make our lives maybe richer, I would argue certainly more productive and potentially even more interesting. So thinking through the art of the possible and really starting to challenge some of those orthodoxies in environments where people can have an opinion and have a back and forth is really the way for us as organisations, as a society to think about coming out of this stronger and truly thriving for the rest of our professional careers. 

Tanya: I hope you’ve enjoyed this look into the future of work. The folks at Deloitte spend a lot of time thinking about it … and they’ve even built out over a dozen different personas for jobs of the future. You can check them out at

Next up in our series: Trust. Trust in government is at a record low … we’ll talk to the authors of a new book on trust. 

Shalene Gupta: Organisations can shy away from apologising because there's a tendency to think that if you apologise, it's tantamount to admitting guilt. But there are actually studies that show that an apology reduces litigation. It's actually in a company's best interest to put out an apology quickly.

That’s all. Coming up on Insights In Depth: The future of government. Subscribe on your podcatcher of choice, and check us out at

You can also connect with us on Twitter at @DeloitteInsight. I’m on Twitter at @tanyaott1. I am Tanya Ott. Have a great day!

This podcast is produced by Deloitte. The views and opinions expressed by podcast speakers and guests are solely their own and do not reflect the opinions of Deloitte. This podcast provides general information only and is not intended to constitute advice or services of any kind. For additional information about Deloitte, go to

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