Federal civil servants know that President Joe Biden wants most teleworkers back in their official offices ASAP. The stated reasons are that it will improve service to the public. Also that flailing or failing merchants — from Manhattan, New York to Manhattan, Kansas — need customers parking, eating and shopping like it was 2018. Before the pandemic! The federal payroll is as important in many places (like San Antonio, Texas, Huntsville, Alabama, or Ogden, Utah) as it is here in the nation’s capital.
Many agencies tentatively plan to have some or most people back in the traditional office this month. But if you like your home office and have never been happier or more productive things could be worse. Suppose, for example, that Elon Musk was POTUS — which some people think he will be someday! If he was in the White House today and you were a fed, chances are you would be back to work now. Like no later than yesterday. Last week Musk sent a message to Tesla and SpaceX workers saying everyone must spend 40 hours per week in an office. That is an office-office, not the home office variety. His message was simple and clear: “If you don’t show up, we will assume you have resigned.” Fortunately for feds who like working from home, Musk is not president. Yet! So agencies will bring back people using different timetables.
Last week I emailed a batch of readers asking their thoughts on teleworking. Is it working? Should it continue for those who like it? I got a batch of outstanding answers. So many, and so good, I had to trim most. Wouldn’t hurt bosses, and politicians, to read them to see what real people/voters around the country are thinking. Here’s the first batch, with more to come:
“I was a frequent teleworker and then full-time teleworker as COVID became a major threat.
Telework was a major positive both for me and my agency as my position was ‘portable work.’ Without the morning and evening commutes and the time spent in the restaurant / cafeteria lines my productivity was greatly improved and my budget was also enhanced without travel and lunch costs. Prior to my federal employment, I spent a long time in Fortune 100 private sector employment, so I have a perspective from both sides.
In the private sector, business decisions were a balance between customer impact (long-term perspective) and shareholder impact (short-term perspective). I saw some negative employee impact when offices were moved from suburbs to center city for a corporate real estate tax break which imposed a wage tax on employees and led to some attrition. Turn-over in staff led to some negative customer impact but the tax savings fed the shareholders.
In the federal sector, business decisions seem to be a strain between the agency mission and other federal agendas (supporting city businesses such as restaurants, shopping and parking; mass transit traffic; procurement from minority, women-owned, veteran owned shops; green initiatives; etc.). Those other agendas have merit but are not necessarily directly aligned with the agency’s mission to their clients.
As an example, [the Office of Personnel Management’s] directive for minimum two days per pay period in the office to sustain locality pay is not aligned with typical private sector analysis. In the private sector, the pay would be established based on what was necessary to attract the required skills where the work was needed. If there was a business need to move those skills, then relocation costs and salary adjustment would be considered. If the work permitted, any personal choice to relocate or work from home was totally on the employee as long as their performance did not suffer. If a private sector person had portable work and chose to move from D.C. to Austin, there would be no pay adjustment and no relocation reimbursement. Different firms might treat travel costs for group meetings differently based on that move. Instead of full reimbursement Austin to D.C., that employee might only get the average of all the other travelers, since their move was not business driven. I remember doing net present value and internal rate of return calculations for HR comparing moving existing talent vs. hiring, training and learning curve time for a new employee at the new location.
At this point, agencies need to consider likely attrition, replacement training costs, and time to find/hire replacements, when considering back-to-work enforcement. I worked beyond full retirement age because I enjoyed what I was delivering for my agency and its clients and was able to provide that via telework. A back-to-work at the office enforcement would have driven my retirement earlier.” -Geoffrey Rhine.
“I believe you get better promotion and career options by being in the office so I never worked more than one day of telework per week in my 41 year career. I was not a big fan of telework. In fact, I didn’t use it regularly until about five years ago. Then COVID hit and we were teleworking full-time. After being home for a year during COVID I started liking telework, and then they announced we might go back to the office. So I requested three days of telework. BANG! Human resources told me I had not teleworked on a two day schedule for a year. I argued that I had been teleworking five days a week for over a year. They ignored this argument and told me they would only approve two days a week. Then Omicron hit and we were out of the office another year. I sort of smiled because I would get my three days per week approved before we returned to the office. I teleworked two days a week for a year, was a superior performer, and had my boss’s approval. I requested three days of telework per week. BANG, stymied again! They approved my schedule but put me on the waiting list because 25% of my division was already on expanded telework. I knew all these rules existed but I never believed they would be so bureaucratic to continue to apply all these rules after teleworking full-time for two and a half years, but they did. It took 60 days to get off the waiting list and I am now approved for three days of telework per week. Next June I can request four days of telework per week.
I used to commute one hour to work each way before COVID. I don’t know how I had time in my day to do that and still spend time on things I like or to spend time with family and friends. I have adjusted to a telework lifestyle. I have a local gym and have gotten used to the convenience of no commute. Please keep in mind that I could retire today but plan to work 26 months until I retire. I am not looking for promotions. I am just locking in a nice big pay raise for my high-three annuity calculation. If I was a younger employee looking for promotions I would be racing back to the office. As I said, I think face time in the office with the bosses leads to a better, more fulfilling career. Of course, is a fulfilling career worth the cost to family life and work-life balance? I am pretty lucky in a couple of other ways. I have maxed out my annual rollover leave and my agency allowed us to carry over all of our unused leave from the COVID years. This means that I am sitting on 14 weeks of leave to take before Jan. 1, 2023. That means that when we return to the office in September I will go on leave for about four months (it’s like a sabbatical). When I return to work in January 2023, I will have 19 months until retirement. Additionally I will be on three or four days of telework for those last 19 months. I really don’t want to commute for an hour anymore but I do want to see all my friends from the office.
I think we all need to realize that telework is good and bad and we all hope we will have flexibility to apply it in a rational way to our particular situations. Why shouldn’t new moms save annual leave and telework if they are able to work flexible work schedules. Why can’t employees realize that seeing people in real-time is better than zoom. Zoom works but there is more to the job. Yes there are exceptions. Some jobs cannot telework and others can do it full-time. The D.C. community is not really ready for the return to the office full-time. Traffic is much worse. I think this is because everyone thinks that they can drive and avoid metro, because not everyone is back to work. But everyone is thinking that thought and the roads are a mess. Eventually people will move back to mass transit. But mass transit is a real problem with COVID or other pandemics. I think we will all adjust but this year will be difficult on all fronts.” -Anon
”Hi Mike. IRS is in ‘Stage 2’ of the transition back to the office, which means for the most part that people can return to the office voluntarily. The final stage starts after June 25, 2022, when everyone returns to their normal tour of duty office/telework schedules. So, for now, I’m working at home except for an occasional day in the office and that hasn’t been too bad because the majority of people seem to be continuing to avoid the office entirely. That isn’t any surprise considering the recent uptick in the number of emails we’ve been receiving about COVID cases identified in the various offices around the country. Frankly, I am concerned with the idea that we continue to press forward with the idea of returning to the office as “normal” when the pandemic isn’t finished with us. The virus hasn’t gotten to a point yet where it’s more like the flu we experience now compared to that pandemic back around 1918. Maybe one day the danger will be reduced from where it is now but, until then, I’ll continue to try to minimize exposure by teleworking as much as possible and wearing my mask whenever there is a crowd around. I guess time will tell if those pushing for a return to the office are right or not but it’s a helluva of a grand experiment with people’s lives at risk.” -Pro Teleworker