‘Telework is not one-size-fits-all’: Agencies defend hybrid work for feds in front of House lawmakers

Left unsatisfied with the telework data available from agencies, lawmakers on the House Oversight and Accountability Committee pressed harder on a handful of fe...

Agency leaders are still adjusting their return-to-office plans after the Biden administration called for an increase to “meaningful” in-person work and cuts to telework for the federal workforce.

The administration, in large part, has emphasized the importance of using data to measure productivity, engagement and other factors that telework affects, according to the initial return-to-office memo from the Office of Management and Budget in April.

But left unsatisfied with the telework data available from agencies, lawmakers on the House Oversight and Accountability Committee pressed harder on a handful of federal leaders this week.

A hearing Wednesday of the Oversight committee’s subcommittee on Government Operations and the Federal Workforce came after months of pressure from Republican members who have repeatedly called on agencies to share more granular data on telework and productivity of federal employees.

“Many responses were in fact not responsive. They did not respond or severely delayed their response to this government operations request,” Subcommittee Chairman Pete Sessions (R-Texas) said during the hearing. “11 of the 25 did not include any figures at all regarding how many of their employees were currently teleworking, either in Washington D.C., this area or nationwide. This lack of transparency or lack of basic knowledge the administration has about the federal telework workforce raises concerns that every single member on this committee on both sides of the aisle should share and be a part of.”

Leaders at four agencies — the Social Security Administration, Department of Commerce, Department of Health and Human Services and the Agency for International Development (USAID) — testified before the subcommittee. Sessions said the four witnesses represented the less-than-satisfactory responses from agencies in May.

During the hearing, lawmakers sought more information on the impact of continued telework on productivity, office space, system security, recruitment and retention — and much more.

In September, the subcommittee also questioned four different agencies who they said served as positive examples of delivering “good faith” data on their plans and measurements of telework’s effectiveness.

The agency leaders this week tried to give more information, while also emphasizing the importance of maintaining a balance of both telework and in-person work — echoing the goals of the Biden administration’s memo.

“The [Commerce] Department now operates in a hybrid posture that is designed to help us retain and motivate our employees by providing flexibility to a workforce changed by the pandemic, but which also embraces the many benefits of in-person engagement and team building,” Jeremy Pelter, the Commerce Department’s deputy assistant secretary for administration, said during the hearing.

Pelter added that after the department’s initial return-to-office announcement in March 2022, agency headquarters occupancy increased from 24% to 42% between fiscal 2022 and now.

“The department anticipates that this upward trend will continue,” Pelter said.

That upward trend is not unique to Commerce. But other agencies such as HHS said that as in-person work does ramp up, it’s important to measure and drive results.

“There is a correlation between employee engagement and attention to employee well-being, and performance and the results that we’re able to deliver,” HHS Chief Human Capital Officer Bob Leavitt said. “Workplace flexibilities matter in delivering well-being, engagement for the workforce, and their ability to perform and be productive in support of all Americans.”

Pelter and Leavitt, as well as leaders at SSA and USAID, said workplace flexibilities also help them remain competitive against the private sector. After the COVID-19 pandemic, many employees have said telework is now much more important to them.

And there are certain areas of the workforce where it’s critical. In one example, military spouses, who often face unemployment when their families relocate, are highly drawn to remote work options.

By keeping that in mind, Leavitt said efforts at HHS to hire military spouses have largely emphasized the workplace flexibilities. As a result, the department increased the number of military spouses in its workforce by 36% in just the last year.

But subcommittee Republicans remained highly concerned about several areas. They said increased telework during the pandemic contributed to worsening agency services and underuse of federal office space.

Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) pointed to a report from the Government Accountability Office earlier this year showing that federal offices in the D.C. area are at just 25% capacity on average.

“No agency of the federal government was utilizing more than 50% of their headquarters office space. The top quartile average utilization was 35%. Federal agencies spent $2 billion annually of taxpayer money to operate and maintain federal buildings and spent $5 billion more on leases,” Biggs said. “In our nation’s capital, the offices are sitting empty.”

Republicans also pushed for answers on the security of systems for teleworking employees, declining productivity and services, and performance management. The subcommittee members particularly scrutinized SSA over its public-facing services, pointing to increased backlogs at the agency and blaming telework for the issues.

The backlog has “resulted in several of my constituents receiving unsatisfactory customer service to receive the benefits that they have worked for their entire lives. In fact, three out of five applicants who are applying for their Social Security benefits … will be denied benefits after waiting for approximately seven months,” Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) said. “If you’re going to have a call for increased meaningful in-person work, then we need to understand that timeline and actually be able to fulfill it.”

Hank McKnelly, executive counselor to the SSA commissioner, however, said that the increased backlog was due to a rapidly increasing number of Social Security beneficiaries combined with record-low staffing levels at the agency.

“That’s a math problem,” McKnelly said. “If you have those workloads increasing and you don’t have the staff to take care of those workloads, you’re going to have the backlogs that you’re talking about.”

On the other hand, subcommittee Democrats said if there are protocols in place to measure productivity and hold employees accountable, then location matters much less.

“If your job is to write proposals to the federal government, and you want a hit rate of ‘x’ percent, and you meet or exceed that, I don’t care if you’re at home in your pajamas — keep doing what you’re doing. Because it’s the outcome that matters,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said. “Not every job lends itself to telework. But there are plenty of jobs where we can actually enhance productivity.”

The federal telework debate draws out

For agencies, the pressure over telework has come from all directions — the White House, Congress, federal unions, local and state governments and even the employees themselves.

The Biden administration, for one, doubled down on efforts just this week to get federal employees back to the office more often. The administration is now pushing harder on certain agencies, according to a Wall Street Journal report.

That comes after White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients told agencies in an August email to begin “aggressively” executing return-to-office plans this fall.

An OMB spokesperson said the return-to-office memo is a “top priority” and Zients has repeatedly raised the importance of these agency plans during Cabinet meetings.

“This issue is on his priority list of items that he brings up in his regular engagements with Cabinet secretaries,” the spokesperson said in an email to Federal News Network.

Even though many agencies have already begun their return-to-office plans this fall, others have said those changes still lie ahead. Some agencies have yet to publicly share their plans in response to the OMB memo from April.

Regardless, the administration expects all agencies’ return-to-office plans to push federal employees to work in the office at least half of the time each week.

At the subcommittee hearing Wednesday, McKnelly said workplace flexibilities are a crucial tool to retaining employees in those field office positions while also supporting the agency.

“Telework is not one-size-fits-all. Rather, it is based on business needs,” McKnelly said. “For over 20 years, we’ve had telework to some degree at our agency. Our telework policy is the same now as it was before the pandemic. Our hybrid work approach supports our mission.”

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