DLA and its workforce at odds over rigid new telework policy

DLA's latest policy requires all of its employees to be in office on three specific days each week, irrespective of their job functions or locations.

Leaders at the Defense Logistics Agency say they are still assessing the effects of an aggressive return-to-office policy that’s led to widespread employee dissatisfaction and two formal allegations of unfair labor practices, but that so far, the policy does not appear to have had a serious negative impact on recruiting and retention.

DLA’s new policy is one of the most prescriptive in the federal government, but officials say it’s necessary as part of a broader effort to “transform” the agency for great power competition. The changes took effect in January, requiring all employees to be in the office at least three days each week.

The three-day in-office minimum isn’t unheard of among federal agencies. What’s unusual is that individual supervisors and employees have no say over which days those are. All 18,000 of the agency’s telework-eligible staff are required to report to their offices on the exact same days: Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of each week. The across-the-board rule is significantly more restrictive and burdensome than even the polices that were in place before COVID, several DLA employees and union leaders told Federal News Network.

“I know for many, it’s not the most popular change that we’ve made over the past several years,” Brad Bunn, DLA’s vice director told a worldwide town hall presentation last month. “But given the requirements that we’re facing, and the urgency and speed at which we need to make these changes, the agency made that shift and standardized when folks are together. We already are challenged with a very geographically dispersed workforce and how our headquarters elements are dispersed throughout the agency. We wanted to have a process where we could bring folks back and have the environment where we could bring changes and use that collaboration and integration to drive solutions.”

DLA is an outlier, employees say

As part of a return-to-office survey Federal News Network conducted in April, which garnered thousands of responses from federal employees, responses from DLA staff stood out: Employees told us the rigidity of the policy has created unusual financial and logistical difficulties for employeess and made the agency overall a less attractive place to work.

“The strict DLA telework policy does not take into consideration any workplace or position-specific elements, including but not limited to: position description, if the employee is customer facing or not, where the employee’s colleagues or customers are located … and a supervisor’s ability to supervise their own employee rather than enforcing a one size fits all policy,” one survey respondent said. “Both my spouse and I work for DLA, therefore the RTO mandate negatively impacts our work-life balance and has created a family hardship.”

“DLA has mandated we are in the office six days a pay period. On the same installation, DFAS only has to be in the office four days a period, how would that make you feel?” asked another. Another added that “DLA is losing its most talented people in mass quantities. The people who remain have unmanageable workloads.”

Several also told us that they’re finding themselves less productive when they’re in the office than when they’re working remotely, and that challenges with insufficient parking, IT outages, and finding lunch options now that many cafeterias have closed or are overcrowded in the middle of the week are all common problems.

“I spend 50% of my day on teleconferences with customers not located in my office. The rest I spend writing contracts, emails to customers, statements of work, negotiation memorandums, and enjoy not having the distractions of the office,” another respondent wrote. “I need quiet to concentrate and write formal documents. An open-air office does not offer this environment.”

Collective problems require ‘presence,’ leaders say

Lt. Gen. Mark Simerly, who took over as the agency’s director in February, acknowledged there may be some truth to the productivity arguments — on an individual basis. But right now, he said, DLA is hyper-focused on problems that cross organizational and functional boundaries, making in-person collaboration essential.

“We are improving our ability to tackle and solve collective problems by physical presence in the workplace,” he told attendees at the town hall. “Part of the purpose is team building and innovation that is just very difficult to conjure in a virtual setting. I just know from my own personal experience that I run my best wind sprints when I’m with a group. And I think we can achieve our best results when we can encourage each other — we can problem solve, we can innovate when we are standing shoulder-to-shoulder. In many cases, we can be individually more productive [in remote settings]. But I don’t know if we can be as productive as a team when we operate in isolation and separately.”

DLA officials said they’re open to making changes to the new telework policy, and that they’re carefully watching workforce data and gathering employee feedback. So far, Bunn said, there aren’t any metrics that show clear declines in hiring or retention: The number of people applying for DLA positions is down about 5% compared to last year, but retention is up over the same period.

“My initial assessment is I think it’s having the intended effect,” he said “I’m seeing more collaboration happening in real time. I’m seeing shorter lead times to solutions. We’re starting to see that traction, but nothing is set in stone. We will continue to assess our whole [telework] posture over the next year or so, and then we will work with our our policy experts and employee representatives to determine what the best approach is going forward into the future.”

However, union representatives and multiple employees alleged DLA has declined to share specific statistics on hiring and retention since the implementation of the new, much more rigid telework policy. Anecdotally, several survey respondents told us it’s clear that hiring has slowed and that people are leaving at a faster clip than they otherwise would.

“If DLA returned to the telework policy that was in place prior to COVID, I think most people would be fine,” one said. “DLA used to be the agency to work for. Now we are all overworked and under appreciated due to everyone jumping ship,” wrote another.

DLA’s transformation objectives

As far as the big, transformational, organizational changes DLA is trying to achieve, Simerly said they’re largely about putting the agency on a combat footing, and getting DLA to think about how to operate in an era of great power competition, in much the way the military services are.

“When we think about logistics and the way it’s delivered from port to fort, or from factory to foxhole, it’s significantly different than it ever has been. We call that contested logistics,” he said. “We need to understand that logistics is vulnerable; that’s why our enemies will target our logistics capabilities … if anything can be seen on the future battlefield, it will be targeted, and if it can be targeted, it will be destroyed. Those are some of the challenges and changes that have taken place across the world that we have to respond to.”

As one example of near-term changes Simerly wants to make to help prepare for that contested logistics future: DLA personnel need to be regularly participating in the exercises the military services are already conducting to prepare for possible conflict with China.

“As they learn about operating in a contested logistics environment, we have to be shoulder-to-shoulder with them, learning those lessons at the same time and incorporating them back here. We can’t wait for it to come out in the lessons learned compendium one or two years later,” he said. “We have traditionally had people that we’ve been committing to those things over the years. In some cases, we send those people to those things to observe. That’s got to change, we have to send people to participate. And that might mean we have to send different people with different skill sets in order to gain the insights that we need.”

Bunn said at the same time, DLA is making big changes to the business side of its operations that, he argues, also require more physical presence.

For example: the implementation of a new warehouse management system, and changing business processes to hopefully pass a financial audit by 2028.

“The audit is a high-risk proposition, given how many notices of findings and recommendations we have,” he said. “And every one of those corrective action plans is trying to address a pretty gnarly challenge: digital business transformation. That’s recapitalizing our IT infrastructure, our business systems that we’ve relied on for many decades. We are making a ton of changes in a short, compressed period of time, and it requires us to rethink how we do business. That’s not just a [CIO] thing — it’s the business and technology enablers coming together across multiple functions to make those things happen.”

Employees say DLA still hasn’t explained ‘why’

However, many employees told us that agency leaders have not clearly articulated why a future of contested logistics and business transformation requires tens of thousands of employees — across dozens of global locations — to be in their respective offices on the exact same days.

And DLA’s largest union, the American Federation of Government Employees, has filed two separate complaints alleging unfair labor practices with the Federal Labor Relations Authority, arguing that the new policy also violates the agency’s contract with AFGE.

Parts of the contract were imposed by a federal impasse board during previous disputes under the Trump Administration. The contract stipulates that employees need to be in the office for 60% of their work hours, but says nothing about which specific days of the week those hours must be.

And throughout 2023, DLA had been operating under a “pilot program,” in agreement with AFGE, that allowed much more telework flexibility. According to the union, the agency abruptly terminated that informal agreement last September and notified AFGE that it would insist on the three-day per week requirement, and interpret the contract in such a way that the agency could choose the days of the week that would add up to 60% in-office.

AFGE’s complaints to the FLRA allege that the agency refused to bargain with the union over the new arrangement, and violated other portions of the contract, including some that were imposed by the prior impasse panel over the union’s objection.

Regardless of what the FLRA decides about the new policy’s legality, there are implications to the inflexible telework policy that are turning out to make it work even worse in practice than how it looks on paper, said Terry Day, the president of AFGE Council 169, which represents the union’s DLA’s employees.

For instance: if Mondays and Fridays are the only permissible telework days across an agency of thousands of workers in many different locations and work functions, it’s guaranteed that the most junior members of the workforce are going to get the short end of the stick — since it’s almost impossible for any individual worksite to have all of its employees teleworking on any one day.

For those younger employees, Day argued, the new policy is effectively a telework prohibition.

“The people with the most tenure, 20-30 years, are going to take up the Mondays and Fridays. It’s a severe disadvantage for the people who have just gotten out of college and are just starting — that’s what they’ve taken away from these employees,” he said. “A lot of those younger people are going to go to jobs where they can telework five days a week. You’re not going to keep people around if they can go to a contractor where they make more money and get better benefits.”

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