The Federal Government Is Embracing Telework

Coming guidelines are expected to make pandemic policies permanent.

In Biden administration moves toward making the pandemic work-from-home experiment permanent for many federal workers, Lisa Rein reports on the Biden administration's embrace of minimum office as a new normal for the country's largest employer, with 2.1 million workers. In the next few weeks, a federal bulletin is expected spelling out the government’s plans, going forward, and they are a big shift from Trump's:

Notice of the change is expected in June, when the administration is set to release long-awaited guidance to agencies about when and how many federal employees can return to the office — likely in hybrid workplaces that combine in-person and at-home options, according to officials and memos obtained by The Washington Post. The bulletin is expected to address remote work policies in the immediate and long term.

“We anticipate this guidance will leave room for decision-making at departments and agencies, to provide maximum flexibility for defining work requirements to meet mission and workforce needs,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because plans have not yet been finalized.

Some agencies have already made it clear they intend to give both current staff and new hires the option to continue to work away from the office.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced at his first town hall with employees in March that the department will allow telework as much as four days a week, expanded use of virtual and remote duty stations and more flexible schedules in its post-pandemic workplace. The department had been the first under Trump to slash what had been a robust telework program established during President Barack Obama’s second term.

“This will allow us to recruit and retain the absolute best talent, which will make USDA an employer of choice,” spokesman Matt Herrick said. Requests for continued telework are the “number one question employees ask,” he said.

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The share of the workforce teleworking every day rose from 3 percent before the pandemic to 59 percent at its peak last year, according to a recently released survey of federal workers.

Note that the even larger federal contracting workforce would likely follow this trend, at least in part.

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This article doesn’t touch on the impact of such a shift in behavior in decreased commuting times, gas usage, and impact on the environment. Millions of people not commuting several days a week has to be a good thing, right?

Of course, there is contention in Congress over the degree to which -- if at all -- Federal workers should be compelled to return to federal workplaces. And the greatest antipathy to telework thinking is coming from Republicans.

“It is time to begin transitioning to the workplace,” Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.), the top Republican on the House Oversight and Reform subcommittee on government operations, wrote last week to the government’s acting personnel chief.

Pointing to rising vaccination rates, declining covid-19 cases and newly optional mask policies in federal buildings, Hice wrote that “prolonging arrangements taken in an exigent situation is not a permanent solution.” He cited other “serious concerns” about the push for fully remote workplaces that don’t have daily direct contact with the public.

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“My offices are open so they can serve our constituents,” said Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), “but my constituents are calling the IRS and they can’t get anyone on the phone in the name of the pandemic.” He has asked the Biden administration to explain why federal offices in states with low transmission rates remain closed.

“Our state agencies are open,” Waltz said. “Our schools are open. We’re asking federal agencies, ‘Serve the folks you’re supposed to serve.’ ”

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“This staff should be pushed to the front of the line [for vaccinations] and sent back to work,” said Rep. Mike Bost (Ill.), the top Republican on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, who is part of a bipartisan group of lawmakers pressing the National Archives for answers. “What is the hold up?”

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Yes, certainly, many jobs require working in the office, but providing phone support on someone’s tax return is not one of them. The problems

at the IRS are worker shortages and poor technology, not whether the federal employees are in the office or not.

Note that the Republicans seem totally uninterested in what the federal employees think. A recent government survey shows that while 48 percent of those polled said their work demands rose during the pandemic, and 75% said the pandemic was disruptive to their work, still engagement rose from 68 percent in 2019 to 72 percent last year, and overall job satisfaction rose from 65 to 69. In particular, 44% were very satisfied with the telework program in their agency, and 35% were satisfied: 79% in all.

I'm betting we won't hear much from Republicans in Congress about the job satisfaction of federal employees due to telework. Instead, they will demand federal employees go back to the status quo ante, even if that would drive down employee engagement, and then — inexorably — a decline in work performance and, finally, a drop in agency customer satisfaction, as well.


Related: Disconnect between workers and leaders about returning to the office by Kimberly Merriman, David Greenway, and Tamara Montag-Smit summarizes a great deal of inherent tension between management — who are not doing a great job of getting across their reasoning about their businesses are seeking to optimize — and employees concerned for safety, well-being, and the benefits of working from home.