How Federal Government Can Operate Virtually


A year ago I started working 100% virtual. I moved to Rhode Island. A good friend of mine also made the same choice. She moved to Montana. We’re both living far away from home base and are more productive than we ever have been before. A fog has lifted and reality is clear. Brick and mortar workplaces are a thing of the past.

I spoke last week about the recently released GAO report on telework. The report makes great points about measuring the federal government’s transition to telework.  But to what purpose? We need to stop talking about telework like it’s a thing.  Telework is not a thing. It’s a means to an end. The real conversation needs to be about the federal government operating in a fully virtual environment.

While I was at NASA, I conducted an experiment on virtual work environments. I shut down my office for an entire month. We engaged in a rigorous process to collect information about people’s experiences working in a zero footprint environment. Here are some things that we learned during our Make Anywhere a Remote Site (MARS) month:

  1. People’s perceptions of their skill levels are skewed. People are not as well-trained on their technology as they think they are. People are not up-to-date and on all the capabilities of the equipment, the cybersecurity requirements of their organizations, and how to use their equipment in a virtual environment.
  2. People have learned to get by with the technology they have been issued.  They have little concept of what is possible. Early on, we concluded we needed better equipment for our employees. Fortunately, the agency had loaner computers with cameras, iPads, and iPhones in stock that we could borrow.
  3. Even in a virtual environment, sometimes an in-person gathering is desirable. Collaborative gathering spaces need to be provided.  Also, lockers with charging stations–the #1 request from our participants.
  4. The shift in how people connect to each other and the mission is enormous. On the one hand, people miss the impromptu interactions that they have every day in the workplace. On the other hand, they make more of an effort to connect when they are together—and enjoy those interactions more. That includes in a virtual environment.  A virtual water cooler for people to drop by and socialize is not a nice to have, it’s a must.
  5. Supervisors need to up their game and be far more intentional. A regular schedule of virtual team meetings, as well as one-on-ones, need to be thoughtfully planned and executed.
  6. A total shift in thinking about meetings has to happen. All meetings must be planned. All meeting interactions must be virtual interactions, with everyone participating through virtual tools even if they are sitting in the same room. This way everyone has the same meeting experience, you can capitalize on the capabilities of the virtual environment, and that you can practice using your technology.

Our conclusion? Once people are equipped with an adequate level of technology, it becomes clear that the true barriers to successful virtual collaboration are behaviors — behaviors which can be learned.

Want to know more? Check out:

Microsoft: The Future of Tech

HBR: Making Virtual Teams Work

Jeri Buchholz is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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