Your future worksite: Home, traditional office, or both?

Not that long ago almost all feds worked from an office. Now, by some estimates, more than half work from home. In a couple of recent columns we asked the boots...

Given its size and multiple missions, one could argue the federal government has done as well — or better — than most, if not any, large-sized employer when handling business during a deadly, once-a-century pandemic. With some operations better than others.

Think about where you were, work-wise, in 2019 versus now.

When’s the last time you wore a suit and tie, or high heels, to the office?

When did your office change from a multiple desk operation to a small room with you, a laptop and a scratching post for the cat?

Have you stopped listening to radio traffic updates because you don’t do traffic anymore? Do you no longer risk life and limb on California’s I-5, Route 1 in Florida, or I-10 in Texas? Is reuniting with your old office mates worth it?

Unlike most employers, the federal government has people just about everywhere: From Manhattan to tiny Interior, Agriculture and postal outposts. Workers in both the Empire State building and lonely lighthouses.

Not that long ago, almost all feds worked from an office. Now, by some estimates, more than half work from home. President Joe Biden, and lots of merchants in major fed centers, want you back at the office. Both for reasons of service to the public as well as dollars spent by feds in places where that’s the major, recession-proof salary source.

Many say they’ve never been more productive since working from home. Others think they should return to the office. Many in-betweens would like to work from home, maybe going into the office one day per week. In a couple of recent columns we asked the boots-on-the-ground, people like you, how it’s going? And where it should be heading. These aren’t time-and-motion academics, or politicians. These are real people. Here’s some more comments:

“Teleworking has been great for us at USDA … But when returning to office, [the Farm Service Agency] in Washington is mandating non-supervisors to be in office three days a week, supervisors four days a week. It really has degraded us as employees. Teleworking for most of us is more economical when you have a 45 minutes to 1 hour commute. And it saves the traffic and pollution, etc. [Agriculture Secretary Tom] Vilsack revised the telework [policy] to be able to telework 8 days a pay period. The national FSA office decreased it. We are able to do our jobs at home just like we are in the office. We can answer the phones just like sitting in the office. The whole office does not need to be in the office at one time helping customers. It only takes one person per area. Less interruptions at home than office. Most of our producers prefer email and mailing of paperwork. Most don’t like having to take off work when they don’t get paid to take off to come and sign papers when all can be done by email or mail. FSA needs to get up with modern times. And get up with the grading system as most other General Schedule agencies. A program technician can only go to Grade 7. So you are stuck with your career with a Grade 7. You can only go to Grade 8 if you’re shared management. It has been approached to change the grading system for FSA but nothing has been done. Other GS agencies have different grading systems for their employees. Several of us want more telework days. And we hope we can change things to allow more telework, especially for supervisors too. Maybe you can help.” -Parkersburg, W.Va.

“We should not be ordered to return to working in offices for it has been proven that working from home is actually getting the work done much as it was being done before the COVID situation.

The president wanted people to return to offices to help bring back the economy. Real estate leases have been in jeopardy for 20 years because technology makes it possible to not sit at a desk in an office environment to work.

There are many other reasons that need to be factored into the office building of the past in today’s modern world. Buildings are expensive to operate because of the energy consumption to operate them and travel to and from them.

If we take the sayings from those aspects alone and transfer them to building alternative energy resources and retraining of staff that are left behind from the old jobs that they had in the past to still contribute to the modern way of living, working and society.

This interesting and the best thing to come out of the COVID-19 situation.

We need to use this situation to transform to something better in the future for all, because the mode of operations and status quo from the past are gone.” -Sam

Finally, a thoughtful look at teleworking from a 30-year Treasury employee:

Because of the nature of our agency’s mission, roughly half of the staff worked remotely prior to the pandemic. They would come into the office periodically, maybe for a few days per month, and then it was back on the road to work at customer sites. Video collaboration tools made in-person meetings less frequent and saved the agency travel costs. Some agency staff in other lines of business (HR, IT, finance, lawyers, economists, etc.) worked from home occasionally, but it was largely situational.

When the pandemic hit, we were as prepared as any agency for full time telework. Our existing practices and our IT infrastructure made it so we really didn’t miss a beat. The transition to working from home regularly has been remarkably smooth for most. For those who didn’t telework regularly, it’s been a revelation: “This is great! Why didn’t we do this sooner? Instead of retiring, I might work another five years if I can continue to work remotely.”

Once we were allowed to return to the office, roughly 10% of the staff started coming in regularly. That largely represents the number of people for whom working in an office away from home is more comfortable and productive, and a few others who are needed for on-site support services for the few who are in the office. Last month, our senior leadership kicked off “re-entry” to encourage more people to come into the office at least twice a pay period. Maybe another 15-20% started coming into the office. About 70% of the staff works remotely on any given day now. Many haven’t gone in and have no intention to unless compelled to do so. I know several supervisors and mid-level managers who feel the same way.

I’m pretty proud of how well our front line and supporting staff have been able to carry out our agency’s mission these past two years. Clearly our management and senior leadership agreed because we have two years of signed performance appraisals heaping kudos on our employees for their good work. We’ve proven to our management, to our senior leadership, and to the public that we serve that we can perform our job well from anywhere we have a reliable internet connection. We’ve saved money and aggravation from not having to commute, and we’ve been able to balance our work and our lives, making us happier and more productive workers. We’ve helped the environment by cutting down on our auto emissions polluting the air. It’s been a win-win.

Sure, there are some business that once thrived on the concentration of federal workers, and they are hurting. I feel for their owners and employees. And those office buildings where we used to work still need to be heated and cooled, cleaned and guarded regardless of how many of us are working there, and that seems wasteful since they are so far below capacity. But just because that was our economic model before doesn’t mean that we must or even should return to the way it was. Our workforce adjusted. Businesses and the commercial real estate market will adjust too. Other parts of our economy have adjusted positively to so many of us working from home. We are spending more of our money and time differently, and those businesses poised to take advantage are thriving. That counts for something too. “ -G

Nearly Useless Factoid

By Daisy Thornton

Great whales capture on average 33 tonnes of carbon dioxide over their lifespans, and sequester it at the bottom of the ocean when they die. Trees, meanwhile, capture 48 lbs. per year, meaning it would take one tree more than 1,500 years to equal one whale.

Source: International Monetary Fund


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