A cautionary tale from DEA’s plan to return to the office

Let the Drug Enforcement Administration be the first of what could be many cautionary tales across government.

DEA is requiring its employees no matter the job to come into the office at least three days a week. A recent memo from DEA division heads, as directed by Administrator Anne Milgram, requires employees to come into the office on Mondays and Thursdays, and one other day of their choosing. And if you are working an alternative work schedule — four 10-hour days or nine 9-hour days — telework is not an option.

DEA is moving from maximum telework or remote work to one of the most restrictive policies across government. DEA is expecting employees back in the office starting March 21, Milgram wrote in a memo in February.

While few would argue Milgram, who is rumored not to support telework and wanted to reduce it to one day a week but was talked out of it, should be able to run her agency as she sees fit.

But in making the decision, she is potentially creating a “have and have nots” situation across the Justice Department that very likely could see many see employees look for greener pastures inside DoJ or with other agencies.

DEA refused multiple requests for comments over a three-week period about its new telework policy.

“The feeling is DEA management doesn’t like telework and claim the agency is one that has to do work in person,” said one employee who requested anonymity for fear of retribution for talking to the press. “But this is just not the case for most people. There are a high percentage of DEA employees who are not in the office.”

And for most of the last two years, that has been the case for DEA and many other agencies.

Justice offers more flexibility

Milgram’s decision also creates tension with the Justice Department leadership. DoJ’s Management Division sent out a memo in late March promoting maximum telework options as the agency employees return to the office.

The memo builds on what the White House and the Office of Personnel Management have been promoting too — maximum flexibilities for continued remote work.

Lisa Monaco, the deputy attorney general, wrote to employees in late February that the agency is “closely monitoring CDC and OMB guidelines” and their reentry plans are based on science. Monaco said she was “happy to announce in light of declining COVID infections” and employee vaccinations that the agency is shifting away from maximum telework and beginning in March will bring employees back to the office.

Monaco said this “does not mean returning to pre-pandemic operations. Rather each component is finalizing updated policies to meet unique operational needs which contain increased flexibilities including increase telework where practicable.”

Yes, Monaco gave the usual out for component leadership to “meet their unique operational needs,” — she is a lawyer after all — but the real crux of the sentence is not returning to pre-pandemic operations.

Over the last two years, the telework naysayers across government have been proven wrong, and the Biden administration is recognizing that remote work options don’t just need to continue but are an essential piece of creating a healthy and productive federal workforce.

Two lessons to heed from DEA

The cautionary tale from DEA is two-fold.

First, employees are receiving mixed messages and that are both confusing and disheartening. The White House and Justice headquarters are saying “telework is important and is a key tool in the personnel tool box.”

But the DEA isn’t following this lead and telling employees, “nope, the last two years are meaningless and you need to be here so we can see what you are doing and making sure you aren’t wasting time.”

So if you are a DEA employee in finance or IT or procurement and now you are required to spend an hour commuting and money on metro or ride share but you are seeing employees at the FBI or the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who have similar roles as yours working from home four days a week, maybe it’s time to look for a new job?

“Whether it’s from the White House or the attorney general, they are giving directives to allow for more telework because it worked. It was better for retention and morale,” the source said. “Yes, you have to look at the nature of the jobs, but generally speaking we as government should be looking toward more telework and that is the message from the White House. But if you allow an agency head who doesn’t like telework to say it’s not good for their agency mission, then it’s creating confusion.”

One DEA employee who messaged Federal News Network privately summed it up this way:

“You ask about DEA’s plan; it stinks. Our upper management learned nothing about our telework capabilities. The plan is worse than before COVID. They preach they want a home work balanced workforce, but their cookie cutter plan is nothing close to a balance. What does having alternative work schedule and telework have to do with each other? Do they not realize we work additional hours to make up for that one day pay? That we used to schedule doctor’s appointments etc., so we don’t use additional leave during work days? I’m a manager of a small staff that is also very upset about the plan, I fear I will lose my talented non-core employees to other agencies that have a better grasp on telework as well as I fear we will not be able to bring on board the best candidates due to our policy.”

Governmentwide standards needed

The second part of the tale is the Office of Management and Budget and/or the Office of Personnel Management should consider strongly encouraging, even mandating, some sort of minimum baseline for telework, particularly for positions that are not classified and mostly back office type like human resources, procurement and the like.

This way there is consistency across job areas, and telework support doesn’t create yet another battlefield for hard-to-find people with a specific skillset.

OMB and OPM also could require agencies, like DEA, to make a business case and explain to employees why they need to be in the office more than one or two days a week.

This way agencies leaders have a starting point and then can explain in business terms to their employees about why returning to the office is important — beyond the collaboration and coordination platitudes that we too often hear.

After two years of successfully working remotely, DEA Administrator Milgram, and really any agency leader that is requiring certain employees to return to the office, owes their employees the courtesy of an explanation.

Nearly Useless Factoid

By Robert O’Shaughnessy

China has a lot of neighbors, it shares an international border with 14 countries.

Source: Columbia University

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