Donovan Richards Jr. assumed leadership of Queens — one of New York City’s five boroughs — 14 months ago, when he became Borough President and city staff worked mostly off site. He represents 2.4 million people, many of whom, in years past, commuted to work every day via the city’s labyrinth of subway tunnels.
Richards knows that local government has responsibilities and life-or-death challenges it never can take for granted, regardless of who works where. But one of the greatest lessons that the past two years taught Queens agencies is that hybrid work is good, he believes. Here are his tips for managing hybrid employees.
Trust and Hold Accountable
Employers should not babysit their workers. “When you have a team that’s fully bought into the mission of what we’re trying to achieve, there’s a collective push to make sure we’re hitting on all cylinders, wherever we’re working,” Richards said.
But government serves a unique purpose, and disappointing constituents is unacceptable. “We as public servants have a responsibility to address [constituent] issues as they come up, whether we’re sitting behind a computer at home or whether we’re in the office, period,” he said.
Borough residents have told Richards about problems that his employees (working remotely) helped fix, and that gave him confidence and trust in the professionalism of his workforce.
“That’s the way I define success in my office,” Richards said. “Are we meeting the needs of the people? And arguably, you could say there are some people who report to offices and agencies who don’t get anything done.”
Communication, important for any workforce, is particularly critical when employees work remotely. Richards expects his department heads to regularly check in with their staff — but the idea is to have open dialogue, not act like Big Brother. And if borough workers don’t have the technology they need for remote work, he wants his office to know so that IT staff can provide it.
Although the benefits of hybrid work far outweigh any shortcomings, Richards said, he acknowledged that “there’s nothing like a person-to-person interaction, face-to-face, being able to get together, learn personalities and hear ideas.” In other words, make the most of in-office time with colleagues.
Embrace the New Reality
Richards said the past should be remembered, not emulated. “We cannot reflectively go back to the old way of doing things,” he said. “We cannot re-conform to the antiquated pre-pandemic practice of inflexible in-office work.”
For one thing, the past two years demonstrated the value of mental health and wellness, and Richards wants to give borough employees the space they need to deal with both personal and professional responsibilities.
“I want to provide the workers in our office a healthy work-life balance where, yes, if they need to pick up their children, they’re provided that opportunity … as well as make sure that because employees are on the city of New York’s clock, they are providing the services they’re being paid to,” he explained.
Be Willing to Experiment
Committing to a hybrid model was a no-brainer, Richards said. At first, all borough workers could select one day per week — Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday — to work from home. The borough just expanded that to two days per week.
There eventually may be flexibility around taking long weekends, but employees should be in the office on Mondays, Richards said. “Monday is the start of the work week, so we really want people to come in and get the juices flowing.”
The policy is voluntary: If people want to be in the office five days per week, they certainly can be.
“By striking the right balance between remote and an in-office work situation, we can pave the way for a healthier future for employees, a more productive future for organizations they work for, and better outcomes for those we strive to serve,” Richards said.
After all, he asked, “If you can’t take care of your home and your mental health, how can you fully commit yourself to the public?”
This article is an excerpt from GovLoop’s guide “Solving Your Hybrid Workforce Problems.”