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Many Coronavirus Lessons Are Here to Stay

Families across the country are spending a lot more time together, with telework in full swing and schools shut down. And as Chief Information Officer Dorothy Aronson prepares her employees at the National Science Foundation (NSF) for an eventual return to the office, matters at home are still on the top of her mind.

Her son, who’s currently in college, will be going back to campus for the fall. However, the semester will likely conclude before Thanksgiving, as experts warn of a second wave of COVID-19.

“We are in a world of continuous change and evolution,” Aronson said on a recent GovLoop online training about building resilience in the wake of COVID-19.

Aronson wants her employees to know that it’s OK for them to be preoccupied with family first, too. NSF leadership has told managers that work comes third, after personal health and the wellbeing of other coworkers.

The Virginia-based agency has embraced a telework environment since the landfall of COVID-19. NSF panels, which are responsible for reviewing and evaluating the status of grants, have shifted entirely to virtual environments. Panelists used to travel from around the world to meet in NSF offices.

But despite the disruption to regular operations, Aronson said NSF has gotten its work done well, even with the added responsibilities of the coronavirus. The successful response has been thanks to NSF’s people-first mindset, which connects employees to the mission and offers them support, she said.

“People rebound by coming back to work because that’s where their natural interests lie,” Aronson said.

A Digital Transformation Specialist at Red Hat’s North America Public Sector Team, Dmitry Didovicher said that culture has been the biggest differentiator between successful and unsuccessful responses. Processes and technology are very important, but those are easier to change or implement than an organization’s culture, he said.

Didovicher drew the distinction between top-down and bottom-up organizations. Whereas top-down organizations tend to be rigid in hierarchy and order, bottom-up organizations are more open – listening to the wants of employees and prioritizing experience.

The biggest advantage open organizations have in responding to inopportune circumstances is that they’re open to change, Didovicher said. This quality, which is known as agility, can be seen in the processes and methodologies they embed.

“You can’t go up to a vending machine of solutions and say, ‘Hey, let me order up some Agile,'” Didovicher said.

Even once offices open up, successful agencies will not be able to rest on their laurels. Aronson said NSF will continue evaluating more processes and look at alternate hours for some employees to create a safer, more socially distant office. The agency’s review panels will likely become a mix of in-person and virtual.

Many changes are here to stay, as Aronson is reminded at her family dinner table. Her husband, the child of two parents who lived through the Great Depression, still makes sure to finish off every scrap from his dinner plate. Like her husband’s values were passed through generations, Aronson expects COVID-19 lessons to stick around, as well.

“We’re actually bouncing forward, not just bouncing back,” Aronson said.

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