You need a scorecard to track back-to-office policies

Agencies are hatching return-to-the-workplace policies one by one, and none of them quite match

The return-to-the-office drama keeps adding characters, but the final scene remains unwritten.

Last week the Interior Department called for management employees in the national capital region to start spending five of 10 days in a pay period in the office, starting next month, the telework-eligible rank-and-file, two days per pay period. Interior will tighten up on remote work, by requiring assistant secretary level approvals. The goal is fewer remote employees over time.

Plans are all over the map, so to speak. In my last column on this topic, I urged everyone to get used to 3 days in the office per week. In reality, agencies are calling for a maximum of 3, and as little as 1.

Policy variances between management and worker-bees generally occur where agencies need to negotiate return-to-the-office with the unions. (My baby boomer lizard brain keeps wanting to type “return-to-work,” having been imprinted with the notion that “work” is a location as much as an occupation.) Referring to requirements for management, agency announcements parrot the original White House order to consider things like “organizational health” when crafting office returns. Agencies cite collaboration or team cohesion.

Big, sprawling Homeland Security hasn’t settled on a policy.

In classic language, it is “currently assessing its workforce policies to increase in-person work in order to continually improve the department’s organizational health and performance.” HQ muckety-mucks want “decision making on these matters to take place at the lowest local level possible by the management officials who best know the operational realities and work requirements.”

What’s really happened is that the pandemic amplified a long-running debate among the telework and in-office crowds. If the two sides were on a see-saw, the pandemic dropped a load of sandbags on the telework side. Now they’ve slipped off and a more even balance has returned.

So I maintain my original prediction, with variations on the theme. Some days in, some days home.

According to one reader, HHS seems to have thought out return-to-the-office thoroughly. R. reports that those with telework agreements will have their work schedules “optimized” so  people are in the office on the same day, with supervisors holding an in-person meeting at least once each pay period. Someone bring donuts.

When settled though, government-owned buildings in D.C. will be more heavily occupied than they have been since March of 2020. You can’t shrink buildings, and it’s unlikely Labor, say, would move in with HHS, with the government renting the Frances Perkins Building to whom, a bunch of law firms? What to do with 50% occupied, on a daily basis, leased space? That remains an open question, and the government doesn’t have a great record at disposing of unneeded property.

Then there’s this question:

Will you bring a bag lunch or patronize the eateries within walking distance of your federal office?

Probably that question looms large for Washington, D.C. officials as they relish federal employees with D.C. headquarters locations receiving back-to-office orders.

Recall that months ago, they urged the federal government to get people back in or give up its leased space so others could presumably fill up those offices with workers to splurge on lunches and mid-day shopping sprees.

Yet D.C. doesn’t look like its doing so badly. I scanned the menu at a new restaurant about a block from Transportation Department headquarters. It features $18 cocktails. Proprietors must be confident somebody will patronize it.

People also worry about simply getting to work. One reader cited the increase in greenhouse gas if people start driving to work again, although the traffic locally has already returned to its pre-pandemic snail pace.

I feel the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA)  looms as a potential travel disaster for the national capital region.

Going to a Nationals game the other evening, I found inbound Metro rail cars at rush hour more filled than I expected. Traffic in and around the city feels totally pre-pandemic. In reality, average ridership is up only to 75% of what it was. The Metro system is descending into long-term financial disaster, according to the Eno Center for Transportation. Next year it could enter the death spiral of service and staff cuts chasing declining usage, prompting further service cuts. The more people fear just getting to the office on snarled streets or worsening mass transit, the more they’ll pull for telework.

Nearly Useless Factoid

By Michele Sandiford

Peanut butter can be turned into diamonds.

Source: BBC Future

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