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Enabling the Remote Government Enterprise

The COVID-19 pandemic challenged our basic assumptions about where and how government work should be done. We’ve learned that much of government work can be done remotely, but many agencies are working out how to do it efficiently and reliably.

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The COVID-19 pandemic challenged our basic assumptions about where and how government work should be done. We’ve learned that much of government work can be done remotely, but many agencies are working out how to do it efficiently and reliably. With money already invested in the technology needed to support our new distributed teams, now is the time to develop a functional operational strategy to build upon this foundation and streamline workflows. At the core of it all is enhancing the way our teams work together in remote environments.

Additionally, what we are learning from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is that investing in individual contributors’ health and tools to achieve teamwork in distributed teams has become increasingly important. The culture shifts to long-term adoption of remote work are tectonic in nature. It’s important to address them while you’re addressing whatever stance your agency is taking on remote work now and in the future. This article takes a closer look at trends and points out clear steps that agencies can take to enable and optimize their remote government enterprise while aligning and engaging their entire workforce.

The Future of Government Is Automated, and That’s a Good Thing

Over the past year, artificial intelligence, machine learning and deep learning have continued to be incorporated into citizen and employee workflows, bringing increased automation to the government enterprise. This is good news for many municipal agencies, where budget cuts and talent shortages have forced teams to do much more with far less. Automation frees up our time and delivers much-needed support in mundane but important areas, making it a clear winner for remote teams. Even technologies that automate the simplest of workflows can have a dramatic productivity effect across the entire team. The benefit here is obvious: You can be more effective and add more value without adding more people.

But there are other benefits as well. Automation frees up our cognitive load, providing the opportunity for agency employees to take on more strategic (and interesting) work. This side benefit is a key element of employee engagement and can improve morale across the entire team and reduce employee churn.

Atlassian relies heavily on this concept. Teams from IT to HR to legal to design act like service teams and use a highly automated service desk solution to maximize productivity. This makes it much simpler for all of us to find the information we need, or direct questions and requests to the right team.

Leveraging automation technology will be exciting, but making it work best for your department or team will not come without adjustments. Workflows and procedures will need to be optimized, and that will likely mean incremental improvements over time. One of the best ways to handle these improvement cycles is by taking an agile approach with exploratory “spikes” where team members try out new tools, procedures and workflows. As the explorations occur, it will be important to have frequent retrospectives that allow the team to reflect on not just the value of the automation, but how the team is working together overall. Team input into the changes creates buy-in, which is necessary for the cultural shifts required for a blend of remote work/in-person teams to function cohesively. One of Atlassian's free playbooks gives a great framework for team retrospectives - it's easy to implement and can help of your team members feel heard.

Leverage the Power of a Distributed Team

Chances are, your agency is like other state and local government agencies and is responding to the pressures of budget, COVID-19, remote work and citizen needs by leaning headfirst into digital government adoption. And with it, adopting technology and solutions that allow you to move faster, adapt and thrive in all aspects of your work environments.

The good news is these investments will pay off in higher productivity. But achieving this payoff requires changing how government work is done and forces us to think about operating in a fundamentally new way — one where physical or hierarchical location becomes irrelevant. It is within teams where the real work actually gets done, and therefore, the emphasis should be on a location-independent team-centric workflow. In the office or at home, the workflows, communications mechanisms, knowledge transfer and shared practices should be the same across all teams and levels.

This is one of the most powerful remote work concepts and the hallmark of embracing a distributed team. But it’s also the most difficult concept to implement in the state and local government sector. Culture, bureaucracy and decades-old workflow patterns tend to stymie change and keep government teams locked in an ‘efficiency vs. effectiveness’ battle.

The first step is to stop thinking about “remote workers” per se and start thinking in terms of “distributed teams.” With that tiny mental shift, you’ve gone from focusing on an individual to taking a holistic look at what’s going on at the organization level.

Once you embrace the idea of being “distributed teams,” you realize it’s not just about your agency’s own employees. Suppliers, partner agencies and citizens don’t have desks at headquarters, either. And yet, they are integral to your success. They are, in other words, a part of your extended team. So, building muscle around distributed work benefits your relationships with them, too.

The second step is shifting the focus from optimizing the current workflow (efficiency) to focusing on results (effectiveness) and implementing solutions that allow for team-centric approaches; then, you start to see interactions become more organic and natural. When you add location-independent (distributed) workflows and technologies, knowledge transfer and shared practices become second nature, and agility begins. Government teams become more interconnected, transparent and effective than ever before. And you start to see how teams can be assembled and dismantled on the fly depending on projects and demand.

There are a variety of other benefits that a distributed team approach can deliver:

  • When it comes to hiring and retaining people, you are more likely to find better, long-term candidates if you are flexible about where they live and work.
  • Agencies may save money by cutting back on the amount of space they need to own or lease.
  • Employee engagement increases as they begin to work in ways that work best for them.

Think of using several tools as a way to leverage distributed teams and maximize their potential. One tool is to establish goals that tie to agency outcomes (results) and track progress towards those goals. In fact, many agencies working in distributed teams have found automation tools, like Jira Work Management, necessary to track real-time progress.

Working in distributed teams highlights the importance of collaborating virtually. These days, just about any digital tool can claim to be a ‘collaborative’ tool if it can share work between a handful of workers. But few solutions enable distributed teams to effectively collaborate. When purchasing remote work solutions, look for those that keep the team in mind. For example, teams can easily document progress, share knowledge and deliver status updates across the agency with tools like Confluence, keeping visibility and accountability high.

Another tool, which has become increasingly important, is ensuring a healthy team commits to their work while maintaining a positive outlook. Distance can amplify issues. However, as agencies adapt from having employees under the same roof to working in distributed teams, establishing a framework ensures a successful transition.

Use Transparency to Build Accountability

Building adaptable, distributed teams means that agencies need to evolve their thinking around accountability. When the entire team is held accountable for outputs, an employee begins to feel a sense of accountability to the team. And this is where performance and effectiveness begin to improve.

One way to do this is to begin a culture of openness and transparency by documenting individual and team goals and sharing their progress. Some agencies have built real-time dashboards with Confluence to measure progress on metrics like citizen-facing service throughput, citizen satisfaction, hiring or retention; and have shared these dashboards throughout their departments.

Goal-setting is a critical exercise in creating these dashboards, and leveraging the OKR (Objectives and Key Results) framework may be a good choice. In this exercise, leadership can determine three to five goals at the highest level in the agency, defining how the agency will be successful. Unless something ties to a mission objective or agency results, it’s not adding real value. These goals are then communicated to the team level and then to the individual level.

Atlassian embraced the OKR (Objectives and Key Results) model for goal-setting, where each department and team set goals that ladder up to our companywide goals, and we’ve been using it successfully for several years now.

Monthly, we document our progress and status (in Confluence, of course) and share, keeping visibility and accountability high. The OKR model also keeps us effective by ensuring we focus on the right things: outcomes (are we driving impact? being effective? measuring customer success?) rather than focusing on outputs (how busy we are, did we ship or not).

The OKR framework is a simple, powerful way to enable distributed teams and staff to focus on significant yet actionable objectives, which are time-bound and measurable. By properly verifying these activities, staff will clearly understand their impact and can pivot when necessary.

Ensure a Healthy, Remote Team

Once you make that drive toward accountability in your distributed teams, making investments in team health is just as important as the investment goals, workflows and technology. While individual team members’ mental and physical health is important, this is not what we’re talking about here. Instead, we’re talking about a distributed team’s ability to work well together. And while good team health has always been an important concept for government agencies, it’s absolutely vital when work goes remote and teams become distributed. Problems — whether with the work itself or with team dynamics — are amplified by distance. Healthy teams have eight key attributes in common; here are a few of them:

Shared understanding — The team has a common understanding of why they’re here, the issues they need to solve. They’re confident they have what they need, and they trust each other.

Full-time owner — A single owner is held responsible for delivery. This owner is also the champion, ensuring that leadership and anyone external to the team is fully engaged.

Balanced team — The team contains the correct skill sets. Each team member understands the part they play and agrees on their individual roles and responsibilities.

Value and metrics — The unique value in the team’s work is clearly understood. Success is defined as a measurable goal that both the team and stakeholders agree on.

Managed dependencies — A clear understanding of complexity, the infrastructure involved, risks, resources, effort and timeline. And a clear understanding of who we depend on and who depends on us.

This framework is called the Team Health Monitor. It enables teams to leverage individual skills to make a powerful distributed team. It also ensures quick resolution to any issue, even when working remotely.

Summing It All Up

For many state and local government agencies, some form or fashion of remote work is here to stay. And with it, the benefits, opportunities and challenges that arise from embracing it. By shifting focus away from location, outputs and workflows and toward distributed teams, outcomes and effectiveness, agencies can harness the changes that the pandemic forced on them and create whole new ways of working better, together.

We’ve created a resource to help: the Atlassian Team Playbook. This playbook has step-by-step instructions for addressing the new ways of working. In the same way our tools connect people to their work, the Team Playbook connects people with collaboration techniques.

For more information or to reach us for more details on any of the concepts provided here, go to atlassian.com/government.