DoD updates telework policy for the first time since 2012

The updated policy on telework is a permissive one. The biggest change – it now addresses remote work.

The Defense Department is sending a signal that it wants to build a workplace culture accepting of remote work and telework and it’s setting preconditions to make it happen.

DoD recently updated its telework policy for the first time since 2012. The policy is a permissive one and reflects lessons learned and knowledge gained during the pandemic about working remotely. The biggest change is that the document now addresses both remote work and telework.

The new instruction is clear – telework is a workplace flexibility and not an entitlement, and a remote work arrangement won’t be approved unless it meets all of the telework eligibility requirements. At the same time, it instructs the DoD components to “actively promote” telework and remote work, and to eliminate barriers to program execution through education and training.

“I think the previous teleworking policies were pretty draconian and hard to really qualify for because a supervisor at any level could say no,” Matt Donovan, the former under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, told Federal News Network.

“Having an overarching policy in place now gives the employee a little bit more to point to and go, ‘It says that it’s position specific, and here’s my case for it.’ And then it also gives top cover for the supervisor. If he can show continued productivity and mission accomplishment, then it also gives the supervisor top cover to do that as well.”

The document defines telework as a workplace arrangement where employees and service members do their jobs from an approved alternative worksite, but they are still required to report to their agency’s worksite at least twice every two weeks.

Remote work, however, allows service members and civilian employees to work from an approved alternative worksite away from their agency. Employees are responsible for requesting remote work arrangements and their positions have to be remote work eligible at the time of recruitment. Alternatively, positions previously designated as ineligible for remote work would require reevaluation to be eligible.

The policy instructs DoD components to identify telework and remote work eligible civilian positions depending on the mission, to make sure employees and service members are aware of their eligibility, and to take into account telework and remote work when creating new positions or filling vacant positions that were not previously eligible for alternative workplace arrangements.

The guidance is permissive but loose on purpose, leaving it up to the DoD component heads to develop, implement and operate telework and remote work programs in accordance with other DoD policies.

“When I said the policy has holes big enough to drive a truck through, it’s intentional to give maximum flexibility to these agency heads,” Donovan said.

In fiscal 2022, the percentage of telework-eligible employees at the Defense Department was 89%, while the percentage of employees who were teleworking was 38%, according to data kept by the Office of Personnel Management.

Approximately 19% of teleworking employees worked from an alternative worksite for three or more days, 4% of employees teleworked for one or two days, and 31% of employees teleworked occasionally.

In comparison, the Office of Personnel Management report estimated that the percentage of telework-eligible employees was 44%, and only 18% of employees at DoD were teleworking in fiscal 2019. In fiscal 2016, the percentage of employees teleworking was 16%.

The policy says telework and remote work can be used to promote career opportunities for military spouses, reduce costs associated with filling vacancies, increase work-life balance and increase employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

It also instructs the DoD components to use remote work and telework to recruit employees with specialized skills and retain employees with hard-to-replace skills.

“I do think that the document foresees some of these cultural challenges. We want to set up the value proposition for why this might work really well for your office. But it’s not forcing them to do it. So I think a lot of the references to increasing your access to talent, particularly for critical skill sets, is really a compelling argument to hiring managers,” Kate Kuzminski, the director of the military, veterans and society program at the Center for a New American Security, told Federal News Network.

The Pentagon, along with other federal agencies, has long struggled to bring in people with a specific skill set as it competes with the industry on salary and workplace flexibilities. For example, almost a quarter of the Pentagon’s cyber roles remain vacant. Donovan said the department is partially getting after those challenges with the new policy.

“I think that the policy reflects the acknowledgment that we’re in an ever-shrinking talent pool, and there’s a lot of competition for those same people that have specific talents. And if we want them to come work for the DoD, then we’re going to have to offer the same compensation, as close as possible, the same work flexibility as Lockheed Martin, or Raytheon or another federal agency that has opened up their work flexibility mindset, if you will. And DoD could be looking for someone that is in that same pool as the Department of Justice or the Department of State because people do get a vote and that level of competition is just increasing all the time,” Donovan said.

To qualify for telework, employees and service members are eligible to participate when their duties don’t require more than occasional handling of classified information. If their duties involve working with information at the “collateral” secret level, they will be issued a classified telework device. If their work involves working with information at the top secret or special access program levels, they will have to be physically present at their agency.

“When it comes to anything related to [intelligence], or related to military operations or even related to the creation and implementation of high-level policy – that will always require access to secure classified information facilities. But that’s another thing that DoD can think about. How could you either partner with military installations across the country to provide access points for someone who is a remote employee and who needs occasional access, or how they might go about expanding the infrastructure there,” Kuzminski said.

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