The federal government must not only balance the needs of the people it serves, but also the needs of its employees. President Biden established a clear vision for moving the federal government forward on both fronts, acknowledging the national responsibility to advance equity: “It is therefore the policy of my Administration that the Federal Government should pursue a comprehensive approach to advancing equity for all, including people of color and others who have been historically underserved, marginalized, and adversely affected by persistent poverty and inequality. Affirmatively advancing equity, civil rights, racial justice, and equal opportunity is the responsibility of the whole of our Government.”1 As the largest employer in the U.S., the federal government maintains a duty to ensure equity and the fair and just treatment of all employees. As such, equity must be a central focus in post-pandemic return-to-work planning. An equitable return to the workplace is inclusive of all identity groups as agencies bring their workforce back to the office on a more consistent basis. Government leaders must ensure equal access to opportunities for all employees regardless of individual work modality; create an environment that fosters psychological safety and accounts for personal circumstances of federal employees as a result of the pandemic; and adjust the workplace to accommodate the changing needs of employees. The sections below explore key considerations for the return to the workplace and strategies to address barriers.
"Biases," in scientific terms, are not necessarily good or bad. Biases are mental shortcuts that allow us to make quicker decisions. This becomes problematic, however, when those shortcuts lead to prejudice — as in the case of proximity bias. Proximity bias is the tendency for people in positions of power to show favoritism or give preferential treatment to employees who are closest to them physically,2 i.e., most often in the office. This type of bias is most often driven by the assumption that employees are more productive in the office than they are at home.3 Proximity bias can lead to poor resource management, in which assignments are not given to remote employees because of favoritism toward those in the office.4
As federal agencies navigate the increased demand for remote work, they must consider the potential consequences for agencies and individuals. In a survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource management, nearly 70% of managers reported forgetting about remote workers when assigning tasks, and instead primarily giving tasks to employees in their direct line of sight.5
Proximity bias can cause remote workers to miss out on networking opportunities, promotions, and preferential work assignments that could impact their career advancement.6 One study found that those who work remotely have a 50% reduced chance of achieving promotion despite equal or increased productivity.7 These are not intentional slights against those working remotely, but rather the brain taking shortcuts to select the obvious choice for a task — the person visibly sitting across from a supervisor — rather than considering the best team member for the task regardless of work modality.
Proximity bias can exacerbate inequities related to race and gender. A survey from the Future Forum state that 81% of Black respondents and 79% of Hispanic/Latino respondents prefer hybrid or fully remote work over fully in-person work.8 Further, individuals from traditionally underserved communities are more likely to prefer remote work so they can continue to live in their communities.9 Working parents may also prefer remote work over in-person work to minimize costs associated with child care. Given these preferences, it is essential that supervisors and those in positions of power are trained in proximity bias to ensure it does not create inequities in the post-pandemic return to work period. To limit the potential impact of proximity bias, federal agencies can take the following steps:
Hybrid Meeting Options — Federal agencies should ensure all meetings provide hybrid participation options to enable employees to join regardless of work modality. Additionally, agencies should encourage the use of cameras, such as Zoom or Teams, to provide all employees the benefit of face-to-face interaction with colleagues and supervisors.
Online Communication Platforms — Federal agencies should increase the use of online platforms (e.g., Microsoft Teams, Slack) to announce promotion notices, rotational and special assignments, networking opportunities, and other professional development opportunities, rather than word-of-mouth, flyers available only in office spaces, or other mechanisms that could limit their distribution to employees only working in the physical office.
Employee-Supervisor Touchpoints — Agencies should encourage supervisors to schedule regular check-ins with virtual employees to ensure remote workers have the same consistent, face-to-face communication with their leadership, rather than simply relying on "drive-bys" and casual interactions in the office as a means to provide coaching and support.
Virtual Teambuilding Activities — Virtual teambuilding opportunities, such as "water cooler" chat threads or virtual happy hours, are a great way for employees to get to know one another, while remaining inclusive of remote employees.
Microaggressions are everywhere, including the workplace. Remote work has given employees of marginalized identities a break from microaggressions they might have experienced in face-to-face interactions with coworkers.10,11 Experiencing psychological harm of this type leads to increased pressure to adapt one's speech and behavior to the audience (i.e., code-switching), limitations on participating as one's authentic self, and hesitancy to speak out about personal experience.12
Teamwork decreases when individuals experience competency-based microaggressions (i.e., when someone's knowledge, skills, and abilities are outwardly questioned based on their perceived identity), which impacts overall organizational effectiveness.13 With remote work acting as a barrier against workplace microaggressions, a significantly higher proportion of employees with marginalized identities want to remain in a hybrid or fully remote work model, compared to their peers with privilege, as it provides a measure of psychological safety.14 Given these considerations, federal agencies must consider the potential trauma or hesitancy employees with marginalized identities may face in their return to work and establish a plan to mitigate these concerns and create a safe and inclusive workplace. Some recommendations to mitigate these challenges include:
Anonymous Reporting — Federal agencies can offer anonymous options for staff to share concerns of discrimination and disparate treatment, as 90% of employees report they are more likely to report discrimination through anonymous channels.15 This can reduce concerns of retaliation and provide staff necessary resources and options for moving forward.
Showing a Commitment to DEIA — Federal agencies must establish visible and leadership-supported strategies to address bias and microaggression in the workplace. Potential approaches include increased mandatory Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (DEIA) and unconscious-bias training, climate surveys, counseling services, and units responsible for overseeing and tracking implementation of DEIA efforts.16 Emphasizing the importance of DEIA through these efforts can build psychological safety within staff, demonstrating that the agency is committed to equitable treatment of all employees through visible, concrete actions.
Hiring a Chief Diversity Officer — One big step that can be taken to show commitment to an inclusive workplace is hiring a chief diversity officer.17 This signals work is ongoing and offers accountability. Additionally, ensuring a commitment to review processes, such as professional development, hiring and recruitment, and promotions can aid in calling out how microaggressions may be limiting specific identities from opportunities within the federal workforce.
The term "accessibility" means the design, development, and maintenance of facilities, information, and communication technology, programs, and services so that all people, including Persons with Disabilities (PWD), can fully and independently use them.18 During the pandemic, many government agencies have been operating under temporary exceptions to workplace accessibility policies to enable mass telework. As remote work increased during the pandemic, so did the participation rate for working-age people with disabilities (from 34.9% to 37.8% in March 2021 to March 2022).19 This means PWDs are engaging within the labor force in higher numbers than before the pandemic. Part of this increase in labor participation may be attributed to elimination of the barriers experienced in office settings. As the federal government normalizes the return to the office, it will be important to keep accessibility front and center to address barriers impacting differently abled federal workers.
One way to prioritize accessibility in federal agencies and increase labor participation during the transition to the office setting is the expansion of reasonable accommodations, a need that was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic with many immunocompromised individuals in the PWD community. Reasonable accommodations eliminate common barriers to participation, such as attitudinal, communication, physical, policy, programmatic, social, and transportation barriers.20,21 Neurodiverse individuals who are not classified as having a disability can benefit from workplace accommodations, such as headphones to prevent auditory overstimulation and better leverage their abilities.22 Neurodiverse individuals in the workforce may not self-identify as a PWD due to the fact their disability may not be immediately visible by looking at or speaking with colleagues.23 Federal agencies can also prioritize accessibility through policy enhancements; for example, allowing service and emotional support animals that are trained to perform specific tasks for PWDs. It is important to acknowledge that disability does not look the same for everyone, and promoting self-identification among federal employees will enhance an accessible and inclusive work culture. Navigating the return to the office will require agencies to create a detailed plan and an effective communication strategy to enhance workforce accessibility. The following are some ways to mitigate accessibility challenges in the federal workforce:
Normalize Requesting Accommodations — Agencies can normalize the process of requesting reasonable accommodations by having proactive and affirming discussions at regular intervals, such as staff meetings, performance reviews, and moments of transition such as returning from remote to in-person work.24 Information on accessing accommodations should be provided during employee onboarding, as well as in writing throughout their tenure. Agencies should not assume employees know their rights and should take the opportunity to explain basic information on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) through posters in shared spaces and newsletters. Normalizing requesting accommodations may encourage those with disabilities to feel comfortable accessing reasonable accommodations.
Cleanliness and Hygiene Measures — Health safety through better hygiene is a top priority for many PWDs who are immunocompromised during the return to the office. Citing recent surveys, 66% of U.S. workers stress the importance of adequate cleaning and disinfecting practices in the workplace to feel safe and have peace of mind while returning to the office.25 One way agencies can increase employees’ confidence in their return to the office and mitigate the impact of COVID-19, influenza, and other illnesses is by partnering with professional cleaning organizations that adhere to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
Flexible Team Culture — Managers should normalize having conversations with their teams about team expectations and needs for success at the start of new projects or as new staff are onboarded. This provides an opportunity to request accommodations or work preferences that will allow the team to be successful. This may include when it is optional to have cameras on during virtual meetings, adjusted work hours, or specific workspace or communication needs. Such practices promote an understanding work culture within an agency that values flexibility and individual needs as a productivity enhancer instead of special treatment.
Avoid Segregation — Virtual work is a big advantage for most PWDs. However, avoid making virtual options the default because it might be the “easiest” option. Everyone benefits from “face time” and informal office relationships, such as lunches and after-hours gatherings. Government leaders should be intentional about what activities, meetings, and professional development opportunities should be in-person and ensure those meeting spaces are ADA compliant and accessible by public transportation. Supervisors should ask all employees returning to work what accommodations they need for in-office activities.
COVID-19 has dramatically impacted the child care industry, as 88,000 workers have left the workforce since the beginning of the pandemic.26 Many families must make difficult decisions with limited access to affordable and accessible child care options. While the workforce is largely returning to work, access is still limited. Employment has been on the rise, nearing pre-pandemic levels, but there are still approximately 1 million fewer women in the workforce now, and according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, “[N]early 60% of parents cite lack of child care as their reason for leaving the workforce.”27 The private sector, including large corporations like Tesla and JCPenney, have elected to offer increased child care benefits for all employees.
As of 2022, 56% of employers provide some sort of child care benefit.28 Subsidizing child care costs would have the dual benefit of keeping employed parents supported in the workforce, while allowing organizations to build partnerships with minority-owned child care providers, which represent more than 50% of child care enterprises and will bring employees back into the office.29,30
While the federal workspace specifically has stricter requirements for having an onsite presence due to the nature of classified work, hybrid work structures are being considered within some agencies so that employees can access unclassified work outside of the office. Recommendations to mitigate limited access to child care include:
Offering Flexible Work Schedules — Flexible work schedules are regularly recognized as a top strategy to support working parents, and was the top request (86%) of working parents in a survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource 31,32 Many agencies are offering maxi-flex hours, “[W]here employees who need to spend several hours during the day caring for their children, for example, complete their work early in the morning or late at night.”33 This offers flexibility for parents who need to drop off or pick up their kids within a certain timeframe and avoid paying for aftercare. Congress continues to attempt to improve federal policy when it comes to paid family leave; with bipartisan support, the federal government hopes to enact paid family and medical leave.
Improving Access to Child Care Centers — The General Services Administration manages close to 100 child care centers. There are many others run by other agencies, including some at Defense Department facilities that are open to children of both military and civilian personnel.34 Improving access to these centers on federal spaces will help retain employees as they return to work. At this time, fewer than 6% of employers provide onsite or nearby child care options for their employees, but this is widely identified as a trend moving forward among the private sector as large businesses like Tyson Foods, Inc., add this benefit.35
Investing in Employee Resource Groups — Organizations can proactively address caregiver concerns, rather than focusing solely on employee attrition. This can be done by “investing strongly in employee resource groups as part of overall DE&I initiatives.”36 An example of this might be a Working Parents Affinity Group, which can serve as a valuable focus group to identify challenges employees are facing and discuss possible solutions for them to present to leadership.
The workplace is continuing to evolve and adjust as a result of the pandemic and changes in the nature of work. As federal agencies consider a return to the workplace and the broader future of work, there are key considerations when it comes to addressing proximity bias, microaggressions, accessibility, and the needs of working parents. There are many ways to improve equity in the return to the workplace. Federal agencies can continue to embrace flexible work options when possible, such as adjusted hours or hybrid work, hire staff to oversee equity initiatives, such as a chief diversity officer, consider child care subsidies in the workplace, and normalize asking for accommodations. If agencies do not consider the impact of their return-to-work plans, specific groups of individuals may be left behind, leading to a less diverse workforce. As agencies move forward, they should take the words of President Biden to heart, and consider how to intentionally embrace a more equitable return to the workplace.
Co-authored by Brittany Marxen, Paden Tranter, Alvin Ogolla, and Victoria Hall.
1 EO 13985 (2022), Advancing equity and racial justice through the Federal government, https://www.whitehouse.gov/equity/.
2 Hirsch, A.S. (2022), Preventing proximity bias in a hybrid workplace, https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/employee-relations/pages/preventing-proximity-bias-in-a-hybrid-workplace.aspx.
3 See footnote 2.
4 See footnote 2.
5 Agovino, T. (2022), Will remote work undermine diversity efforts? Many women and people of color prefer working from home. But at what cost? The Society for Human Resource Management, https://archive.hshsl.umaryland.edu/bitstream/handle/10713/19616/Will%20Work%20-%20SHRM%207-22.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y.
6 Subramanian, S., & Washington, E.F. (2022), Why flexible work is essential to your DEI strategy, https://hbr.org/2022/02/why-flexible-work-is-essential-to-your-dei-strategy.
7 See footnote 5.
8 Future Forum (2022), Future Forum pulse. https://futureforum.com/research/pulse-report-fall-2022-executives-feel-strain-leading-in-new-normal/.
9 Friedman, D. (2022), There’s a connection between remote work and DEIA, OPM’s Harris says, https://Federalnewsnetwork.com/workforce/2022/08/theres-a-connection-between-remote-work-and-deia-opms-harris-says/.
10 Ellis, N. (2022), What the pandemic taught us about racism at work and how to handle going back to the office, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/what-the-pandemic-taught-us-about-racism-at-work-and-how-to-handle-going-back-to-the-office.
11 Alinor, M. (2022), Research: The real-time impact of microaggressions, https://hbr.org/2022/05/research-the-real-time-impact-of-microaggressions.
12 Effects of racial microaggressions on Black women’s work performance as government workers, (2018), Effects Of Racial Microaggressions On Black Women’s Work Performance As Government Workers (une.edu).
13 See footnote 11.
14 Subramanian, S. (2021), A new era of workplace inclusion: Moving from retrofit to redesign, https://futureforum.com/2021/03/11/dismantling-the-office-moving-from-retrofit-to-redesign/.
15 Schmidt, C. (2022), 6 statistics to better understand the extent of discrimination in the workplace, https://www.nasdaq.com/articles/6-statistics-to-better-understand-the-extent-of-discrimination-in-the-workplace
16 Federal Emergency Management Agency, (2020), Culture Improvement Action Plan | FEMA.gov.
17 Risher, H. (2021), The Work to Make Government a DEI Model - Government Executive (govexec.com).
18 Biden, J. (2021), “Executive order on diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility in the Federal workforce,” https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/06/25/executive-order-on-diversity-equity-inclusion-and-accessibility-in-the-Federal-workforce/.
19 Kessler Foundation, (2022), nTIDE March 2022 Jobs Report: Job numbers exceed historic highs for six months for people with disabilities | Kessler Foundation.
20 Office of Disability Employment Services, “Accommodations,” https://www.dol.gov/agencies/odep/program-areas/employers/accommodations.
21 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Disability barriers to inclusion,” https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/disabilityandhealth/disability-barriers.html#Physical.
22 Austin, R.D. & Pisano, G.P. (2017), “Neurodiversity as a competitive advantage,” https://hbr.org/2017/05/neurodiversity-as-a-competitive-advantage.
23 Baumer, N. & Frueh, J. (2021), “What is neurodiversity?” Harvard Health Publishing, https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/what-is-neurodiversity-202111232645.
24 Wrong, Y.S., “Shifting toward inclusion: Accessible workplaces in world recovering from COVID-19," Disability & Philanthropy Forum, https://disabilityphilanthropy.org/resource/shifting-toward-inclusion-accessible-workplaces-in-a-world-recovering-from-covid-19/.
25 Cleaning Coalition of America, (2021), Cleaning-Coalition-of-America_Vaccinated-And-Unvaccinated-Worker-Survey.pdf (cleaningcoalition.org).
26 Goldstein, K. (2022), SHRM, Viewpoint: 5 Things Employers Get Wrong About Caregivers at Work.
27 Hau, I. (2022), Forbes, The Workforce Of Tomorrow Requires A Child Care System Fit For The Future (forbes.com).
28 See footnote 27.
29 Gascon, C.S. & Werner, D. (2022), “Pandemic, Rising Costs Challenge Child Care Industry,” https://www.stlouisfed.org/publications/regional-economist/2022/jan/pandemic-rising-costs-challenge-child-care-industry.
30 Larson, C. & Parker-Cerkez, B. (2022), “Investing in Child Care Fuels Women-owned Businesses & Racial Equity,” https://www.lisc.org/our-stories/story/investing-child-care-fuels-women-owned-businesses-racial-equity/.
31 Cleeland, N. (2020), SHRM, Child Care Complicates Return to Work (shrm.org).
32 Hoff, M. (2022), Business Insider, Parents Joining the Labor Force Need Flexibility and Other Benefits (businessinsider.com).
35 Chen, T. (2023), Wall Street Journal, More Companies Start to Offer Daycare at Work - WSJ.
36 Goldstein, K. (2022), SHRM, Viewpoint: 5 Things Employers Get Wrong About Caregivers at Work.
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