Is it the commute, the office or the greater ability to interleave life and work? Whatever it is, resistance to return-to-the-office directives has proven surprisingly durable. But it’s far from universal among the rank-and-file.
Social Security Administration chief Martin O’Malley is the latest federal executive to poke the telework wasp nest. His Wednesday email to staff, and shared with media including us, lays out a range of new telework policies that take effect April 7th. He prefaced his message with this: “Every morning for the last 32 days, I’ve been going to work at headquarters or catching pre-dawn flights to Social Security Regions across our country. I do this to hear from — and learn from — as many of you as possible, as soon as possible, about what’s really going on.”
After a long preamble, O’Malley tells SSA employees that he’ll be in the Baltimore headquarters office or some other office Monday through Friday. The commissioner’s staff will be required to be on-site four days a week. Deputy commissioners and their staffs, and area director office staffs must “increase” reporting onsite to three days a week.
Those working in the Office of the Chief Information Officer will have to report onside two days a week, which O’Malley also describes as an increase. He’s calling for “greater presence for top level executives at the discretion of the CIO.”
Field offices, hearings offices and centers, case assistance centers, administrative law judge offices, appellate operations and the Office of Quality Review will all continue with whatever telework levels they now have, but they’ll operate five days a week.
If anything, the seemingly tough Social Security policy in reality shows how entrenched telework has become.
For reaction I checked the reliable Social Security News site. It’s operated by a law firm, Hall & Rouse, in Raleigh, North Carolina. Posting the entire O’Malley email drew comments from “Bravo. It’s about time” and “sounds reasonable” to “Took him 32 days to lose his credibility” and “This policy makes no sense for [Office of General Counsel].”
That last one caught my eye. The commenter said attorneys “who have been able to work uninterrupted for long hours are now going to have to commute, some more than an hour and a half each way to work, and lose out on valuable productive time.”
Commuting in and around the Washington, D.C. area has returned to its pre-covid insanity, and I’m sure it’s that way in the other big city areas. D.C. and the surrounding counties have intersections that disgrace humanity (I’m lookin’ at you, Military Road/Missouri Avenue/Georgia Avenue NW), a bad daily commute.
Commuting impinges on all of the other broken-record debates over telework. Does it make people more productive or less? Does it improve collaboration or kill it? Does it boost morale or crush it?
The answer to all of the above: It depends, and on a million variables. Therefore, agency heads need to make decisions, as O’Malley has. “While the best ideas for improving our operations always come from those on the frontlines, some decisions must ultimately fall to the Commissioner,” he stated in his email.
His decision is cut-and-dried in some features, looser and subject to local interpretation in others. Which is how it has to be in an organization with 60,000 people and more than 1,400 offices.
By the way, the government is not the only entity still trying to figure this all out. A Wall Street Journal story the other day detailed how some large companies — United Parcel Service, JPMorgan Chase and Boeing — are trying to get office staffs back five days a week. At UPS, management faces resentment from the warehouse and on-road staff who, of course, cannot telework. Ditto for Boeing, dealing with quality issues at its factories. Its engineers’ union tartly asked why they can’t work at home if Boeing is willing to outsource the very fuselages of the planes it sells.
The corporate mode, though, has settled on less telework than in the height of the pandemic, but less than five days in the office. Several surveys have also indicated the persistence of telework.
Will remote work reform come next? By remote I mean people who are geographically distant from where they work, beyond commuting distance. Bloomberg reported that IBM, which helped pioneer telework 20 years ago, has told managers they have to report to a customer location or an IBM office three days a week, or leave the company. Remote managers have until August to relocate.