Telework ‘essential’ to remaining a competitive employer, Interior official tells Congress

The Interior Department is the latest agency to gain attention from members of Congress over its telework and return-to-office policies for federal employees.

Mark Green, Interior’s chief human capital officer, defended the department’s stance on telework during a House Natural Resources committee hearing Thursday.

“We believe the hybrid workforce model that we’re operating in now is one that works for the department,” Green told lawmakers during the hearing. “In fact, for the department to remain competitive for the talent we need in the future, especially in mission support occupations, we believe it’s essential that we continue to offer telework and remote work.”

But several Republican committee members pressed harder on Interior’s telework posture, saying that it was leading to performance issues and preventing the agency from fully meeting the public’s needs. Members, for instance, blamed increased telework for what they said was a “massive” backlog of projects at the National Park Service, a component of the Interior Department.

“I recognize that telework and remote work can be useful in limited and well-defined circumstances,” Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), the subcommittee’s chairman, said during the hearing. “However, DOI has abused their excessive telework and remote work policies for employees.”

Green, on the other hand, said telework supports recruitment, retention, satisfaction and engagement of Interior employees.

“We’re not seeing any individual employee performance issues,” Green said.

Additionally, officials testifying at the hearing pointed to telework as a major recruitment benefit for many components of the Interior Department, including the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Dawn Locke, director of strategic issues at the Government Accountability Office, said since offering telework, Interior’s pool of applicants has broadened, and they have better skillsets to choose from among job applicants.

“While recruitment and retention had improved, not every position was suitable for telework because they had to be in person,” Locke said during the hearing. “But even if they offered one day a pay period to telework, when those individuals who normally have to be in person just had to do administrative stuff by behind the computer, that was beneficial to them.”

Given the nature of the work, Interior has relatively limited opportunities for telework, Green said. Less than half of Interior’s workforce is eligible for telework to begin with. Many Interior employees are in public-facing positions, working on public lands, recreation areas, parks and wildlife refuges, all of which require consistently on-site work.

“Because of the type of work they do, these employees are generally not eligible for regular telework,” Green said.

Overall, 65% of Interior’s employees nationwide are currently working in person every day. But similar to many large departments, Interior’s approach to telework is not one-size-fits-all. For instance, at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, another component of the Interior Department, about 80% of the staff works entirely in person.

Interior employees who can telework are working, for instance, in information technology, human resources, acquisition management and financial management. In these cases, Green said offering telework is important to be able to retain staff when competing against other potential employers.

These employees “possess highly portable skills and are in very high demand in both the public and private sectors,” Green said.

Additionally, telework has resulted in increased performance in many areas of the department, Green said.

“We’re seeing higher levels of retention of our employees and better scores on the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey around employee engagement,” Green told lawmakers. “The tools [and technology] that we have now allows for managers and employees to stay connected and work together, so job satisfaction is actually even higher.”

Employees’ satisfaction in government has broader impacts too, said Rep. Melanie Stansbury (D-N.M.), the House subcommittee’s ranking member.

“Workplace satisfaction is not just a matter of people being happy in their jobs,” Stansbury said. “It’s a matter of national security. It’s a matter of the federal government being able to carry out its mission. And it’s the ability to actually serve the public in all of the different things that the department does.”

But for Interior, those eligible for telework will soon see their options become more limited. For feds located in the national capital region, Interior mandated all non-bargaining unit employees to soon work in person more frequently. Starting Feb. 11, these employees will have to work in the office or on-site at least 50% of the time. Back in September 2023, Interior’s telework-eligible senior executives, supervisors and managers in the national capital region also began working in the office at least half of the time.

“Taking these steps will ensure that over 70% of the employees in the national capital region will be working in person at greater rates,” Green said.

Interior plans to apply the same return-to-office standards to unionized employees but must first complete negotiations with union leaders before proceeding with any potential changes, according to a recent all-staff email from Interior Acting Deputy Secretary Laura Daniel-Davis.

“This change was part of important and necessary steps to increase meaningful in-person engagement and keep Interior in the strongest possible position to continue to deliver excellent results for our stakeholders, partners and the American people,” Daniel-Davis said.

More broadly, GAO has said telework is an important tool for the federal workforce, but in the same breath cautioned that telework must be implemented appropriately to work well. There are a few potential challenges with telework, such as managing office space and dealing with limitations in technology.

“What I want to make very clear regarding these challenges is that they could be mitigated if agencies follow key practices that provide a roadmap for successfully implementing telework programs,” Locke said during the hearing.

Those key practices can include, for instance, having a dedicated telework office to provide oversight, ensuring appropriate technology for those working from home and having evaluation plans to make course corrections where needed.

Telework for agencies can also support office space reduction and provide cost savings for agencies, GAO has found. Additionally, it can improve recruitment and retention, and offer an opportunity to better balance work and family demands.

GAO itself has maintained a flexible telework policy and seen many benefits as a result.

“We assess the suitability of each position at GAO to determine if those positions could telework [while having] no impact on our performance,” Locke said. “In fact, in 2023, we exceeded our savings by $20 billion in a telework status.”

Agency human capital leaders have also said they see telework as a way to help address skills gaps in the federal workforce, GAO said in a report on Interior’s telework policies, published Thursday.

Skills gaps appear when an agency doesn’t have the right skills on staff — or enough staff members in the first place — to most effectively meet its mission.

The Interior Department, like many agencies, has been grappling with skills gaps for decades. Strategic human capital management has remained on GAO’s high-risk list since 2001.

It has remained on the high-risk list for so long “partially because of the need to address current and emerging skills gaps that are undermining agencies’ abilities to meet their missions,” GAO said in the report.

“Effective implementation of telework policies and procedures could help improve talent management shortfalls, which is often how agencies experience skills gaps,” GAO added.

Still, Congress members’ continuous investigations into federal telework policies do not appear to be going away anytime soon. Many House Republicans are continuing to push agencies for more accurate telework data on the numbers of teleworking employees, the impacts on productivity and more.

The subcommittee hearing was another in a long line from House Republicans pressing agencies on their telework and return-to-office policies. The Oversight and Accountability committee has similarly held multiple hearings digging into the telework policies for a host of agencies.

During Thursday’s hearing, Gosar called for the enactment of the SHOW UP Act, a Republican-led bill that cleared the House in early 2023. If enacted, the legislation would return the federal workforce to its pre-pandemic telework status and significantly reduce telework opportunities for employees.

“It is time for DOI to return to more appropriate pre-pandemic levels of telework and remote work, so that staff will have a stronger workplace culture, working in person,” Gosar said. “House Republicans have put forward the solution to the in-person absenteeism of federal employees — the SHOW UP Act. I urge the Senate to take up this legislation so we can get back to business here in D.C.”

Copyright © 2024 Federal News Network. All rights reserved. This website is not intended for users located within the European Economic Area.

Related Stories

    (Getty Images/iStockphoto/Rawpixel Ltd)silhouettes of workers in an office

    Updated 1/31 with SSA: A running list of agencies’ return-to-office plans

    Read more
    Amelia Brust, Federal News Networktelework, work from home, home office, federal employees

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

    Read more
    Amelia Brust, Federal News Networktelework, work from home, home office, federal employees

    4 agencies answer House Oversight Committee’s calls for deeper federal telework data

    Read more