The high-wire balancing act of returning to work

Some believe feds should have gone back to the office long ago, while others fear they'll lose top talent if their telework flexibilities aren't as generous as ...

We’re now at the point of the pandemic where agency leaders are walking a tricky balancing act.

As more feds get vaccinated, how do they bring back employees who may or may not want to return to an office — and maybe throw in enough flexibilities and incentives to keep them around if their job allows for it?

Federal employees have always been working for the last 13 months, and both employees and their bosses say many of them have been more productive during that time.

The National Treasury Employees Union surveyed nearly 14,000 feds about their telework experiences during the pandemic. Nearly 94% said they would like the option of teleworking additional days after the pandemic, according to the NTEU survey.

About 96% of NTEU survey respondents said they saved time through telework, and 89% said they saved money by not commuting.

“I saved money by preparing my own meals, no hassles finding and paying for parking and no colds or flu,” an IRS employee from California told NTEU.

Nearly 76% said telework reduced their stress levels, and many said their productivity had improved “a lot” or “a little.”

“It made me more available. I have not had to take off work as much and I am never late,” a Treasury Department employee from Georgia told NTEU.

It’s a little trickier though for the feds who provided in-person services to the public before the pandemic, and some say it’s past time they return.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) last week called for federal agencies to reopen their field offices and resume in-person services. He said his constituents in Missouri had trouble reaching the Social Security Administration and the National Personnel Records Center.

SSA local offices have been closed to the public throughout much of the pandemic, with a small number of supervisors and employees working in person to handle emergencies and appointments with the public.

The NPRC has a backlog of nearly 500,000 records requests, and the situation has sparked bipartisan concern. Veterans need access to their military records from the NPRC to receive health benefits and burial services from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

VA signed an agreement with the National Archives and Records Administration to vaccinate NPRC employees and others within the agency who are responsible for fulfilling veteran records requests. And even as employees are getting vaccinated and NARA has expanded the hours in which employees can work, conquering that backlog is a serious lift. VA Secretary Denis McDonough called the situation “frustrating” in a recent hearing.

“Remote work cannot become a permanent reality for the field offices that need to interact with Missourians every day,” Hawley said.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) expressed similar concerns late last week at a nomination hearing for the Office of Personnel Management director.

“The American people, I think, need access to some of these services in person,” he said. “We certainly find this back home in Ohio, as we’re trying to help our veterans and we’re trying to help folks with Social Security issues and other things. Telework works in some cases and doesn’t in others. We need to get people back to work, in my view, to help serve those constituents as the COVID-19 crisis continues to improve.”

We know OPM is working on guidance that’s supposed to help agencies make decisions about telework, remote work and other workforce flexibilities moving forward. Each agency has its own needs and its own mix of teleworkers and frontline staff, and OPM has said many organizations are interested in maintaining a mix of flexible policies for the future.

Kiran Ahuja, the president’s nominee to lead OPM, said she’d work to find balance between workplace safety and the duty agencies have to serve the public.

Meanwhile, HR leaders at some agencies have acknowledged there might be some resistance from employees to return to the office, at least on a daily or even semi-regular basis.

Sherry Van Sloun, assistant director of national intelligence for human capital at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said she’s already seeing “jumpers,” feds who are leaving their current positions for others that are more telework friendly.

HR executives at FEMA, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services said they too worried they’d lose talent if their own remote policies didn’t at least match those from other agencies — and were competitive with flexibilities in the private sector.

According to NTEU’s survey, a little more than half of respondents said they had never teleworked before the pandemic.

Now that they’ve gotten a taste, it’s tough to go back to the way things were.

So where do you stand? Is it past time that you and your colleagues returned to the office? Are your dragging your feet to return whenever the time comes? And if your agency does finalize new workforce policies, will you seek out employment elsewhere if they’re not as flexible as you’d like?

Nearly Useless Factoid

By David Thornton

The city of Naples, Italy maintains a DNA database of the city’s dogs. Any dog poop found on sidewalks or streets is tested, and the owner is fined. Some condos and apartment complexes in the U.S. have similar policies.

Source: Smithsonian Magazine

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