Return to the office? That’s easy to say

Administration's plan to pivot to in-office federal employees isn't so clearcut.

Editor’s note: This column has been revised to reflect receipt of the Social Security Administration’s view of public office reopening.

Here’s one piece of good news: This weekend the days will get longer, or seem to. Shortly, those in the D.C. area will indulge in the annual cherry blossom observation. When running or walking through a stand of blooming cherry blossoms, it’s hard to be pessimistic.

When you consider the resurgence of inflation and the Russian aggression in Ukraine, it’s hard to be optimistic. As an aside, can I just vent by saying, I’d like to punch that Sergey Lavrov right on the nose. What a goon.

Somehow inflation and Russian warmaking are connected through oil. If you listen to the top-of-the-hour news feeds, you’d think the only thing Americans care about is the price of gasoline. People do care about the cost of living, of course, but they also care about the stability of the world and the systems that produce the goods and services they need, and their ability to work. They also care when one country bombs the hospitals of another.

Still, gas does cost more, and regular people — the non-oligarchs — might feel the need to reduce discretionary driving. But what about the new pivot for federal employees to return to their cobwebbed offices? Driving those miles would be non-disrectionary.

Here’s one answer for the government: keep as many people as possible teleworking. The Biden administration’s 96-page updated COVID plan stated, “With the vast majority of federal workers at their workplaces, substantially expanded levels of services at public-facing federal offices (like local Social Security offices). COVID-19 no longer needs to dictate how we work. Federal agencies will lead by example, increasing the hours public-facing federal offices are open for in-person appointments and in-person interactions in the month of April.”

Note that the statement refers to a specific type of federal office.

Social Security is a good example, but it’s not at all clear that Social Security and its unions are anywhere near an agreement on restaffing field offices, or whether Social Security beneficiaries could just walk in or require appointments. Ralph De Juliis, the president of AFGE Council 220, accused SSA leadership of failing to offer clear plans for social distancing, supplies or dealing with visitors. He said some field offices, renovated during the absence of people, don’t even have new furniture.

I asked, and a Social Security spokesman said,  “We are on track to safely reenter, and the safety of our employees and visitors is our priority.  Everyone will continue to mask and the public will physically distance, as will employees who are not fully vaccinated.” He added that the preparations follow an already-established workplace safety plan to which the agency’s three major unions agreed.

Large numbers of federal employees who otherwise might be eligible to return to their regular offices may not want to. Even those that do won’t want a five-day work week of commuting. Who would relish jumping back into the car now every day, with hi-test at half a sawbuck, and schlepping through traffic?

My neighbor is a senior executive at a large department component. He just signed off on permanent telework, and so did most of his staff. I sometimes say good morning when he’s walking his dogs and I’m taking in the papers at 5:30 a.m. — yes I still get two physical newspapers at the house every day. I’m about to start the car and thread my way among the Beltway maniacs. He’s heading back in for, I don’t know, starting up the coffeemaker or going back to bed for a couple more hours of zzzzs.

You’d think the administration would want the example-setting federal workforce to not drive, to the extent possible. Fewer miles mean fewer tailpipe emissions.

Mika Cross, formerly the telework program manager at the Agriculture Department, now an advisor to federal agencies, pointed out that half the federal workforce worked on premise throughout the pandemic anyhow. Remote work wasn’t possible for them. She said she believes planning by the White House, through the agencies on the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force, has planned the details as far as it can. Now, Cross said, each agency has to figure out the particulars of its own return plans, taking into account its own mission and the nature of the work it does.

In fact, she said, she’s aware of agencies that are actively reconfiguring office space to better accommodate what by nearly all accounts will be a hybrid in-and-out work pattern. Some are also shrinking their square footage.

Whatever an agency decides, Cross cautioned against inadvertently establishing a hierarchy, where the higher-ups have more discretion to telework than the worker bees.

Nearly Useless Factoid

By David Thornton

In 2010, someone left a hobbyhorse in a field in Lincoln, Massachusetts. Since then, more have arrived anonymously, and are often rearranged into various configurations. The herd of hobby horses, rocking horses, and other toy horses has become a local attraction known as “Ponyhenge.”

Source: Atlas Obscura

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