Return to office in 4 parts: Feds facing the pressure to reduce telework

With OMB encouraging agencies to bring employees back in the office, here are the trials and tribulations of the latest shift for four agencies.

This week’s Federal Report is being presented in four sections looking at how certain agencies are facing the pressure for employees to return to the office more often.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said OMB had set a deadline for employees to return to the office at least half of the time by a certain date. The story has been updated to reflect that OMB has set no specific deadline. 


Spring has sprung, flowers are in bloom and federal employees at many agencies are feeling the effects of the return to the office bug.

From the Social Security Administration to the Interior Department to the Education Department, the return-to-the-office mandates are in full bloom.

Over the course of the last two-plus months, ever since White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients asked agency leaders on Jan. 19 to “double down” on their efforts to increase in-person work, the number of agencies pushing for more federal employees to return to the office by negotiating the new requirements with union representatives has accelerated.

The latest example is the Labor Department. Acting Secretary Julie Su told agency employees in a Feb. 9 email that she expects to provide an update no later than this Friday. This update comes after Labor delayed its plans to have non-management or bargaining unit employees back in the office more regularly in January.

“First, I want to acknowledge all of you who have sent me your thoughts, concerns, and personal stories about the upsides and downsides of increasing onsite work. While I can’t respond personally to them all, I’ve read your emails and correspondence and I hear you,” Su wrote in an email obtained by Federal News Network. “Your input on the impact this will have on your lives and the lives of your colleagues has been both informative and instructive as we support the administration’s efforts and as we work to ensure the long-term organizational health of the department.”

The push to have more employees in the office is difficult to understand for many employees.

On the FedNews channel on Reddit, anonymous posters who claim to be federal employees routinely highlight both the contradictory and frustrating policy changes that come from many agencies.

Many say the rationale for returning to the office remains unclear, and make the case that the work-life benefits continue to outweigh, in most cases, the in-person benefits.

Recent research by University of Pittsburgh professor Mark Ma and Yuye Ding, a Ph.D. student, seem to support that notion. The researchers found “RTO mandates hurt employee satisfaction but do not improve firm performance.” Ma and Ding analyzed Standard and Poor’s (S&P) 500 firms with RTO mandates.

“Instead of forcing everyone back to in-office work, high-performing employees who perform well at home should be allowed to continue at home. This would benefit the employee as well as the firm in the long-term through retention of high-performing employees, who can more easily find other jobs,” the researchers wrote.

Beyond maybe federal pay and benefits changes, few topics have elicited as much emotion and consternation as return-to-office mandates.

The following four stories are among the most recent examples of this ongoing debate happening across many agencies. It’s clear the RTO answer for many agencies isn’t as cut-and-dry as many would like it to be and like the initial months during COVID of working from home, the solution will come by trial, experience and through a little innovation by managers and employees.

Education’s return-to-office announcement ‘perplexing’ to union

Lawmakers call SBA’s return to office policy ‘extremely minimal’

Census Bureau reconsidering remote work policy

Labor employees protest at their office for more telework riles up lawmakers 

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