Whine, cheese make the return-to-office debate pungent

Brian Elliott, executive advisor around the future of work, said all organizations have to accept that how you measure employee performance has changed.

It may be employees at the LaClare Family Creamery, a goat cheese manufacturer in Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin, that Republican Congressman Glenn Grothman passes by on his way home.

Or it may be the folks at the Old World Creamery, a family-owned food manufacturer located in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, which has been around since 1912.

No matter which of the many cheese factories in his home district of which Rep. Grothman was referring to, he seems to believe federal employees and employees who manufacture cheese have a lot in common.

“When I go home at night, [and this] is kind of a stereotype, but I got Wisconsin, I got all these cheese factories [that] I drive by depending upon which way I go home. They were all packed, even at one o’clock in the morning. So I just want to emphasize that I think, in many private sector jobs, they were showing up at work in the teeth of the [pandemic]. It’s time that we should be back to where we want to be,” Grothman said at the April 30 Oversight and Accountability Committee hearing.

Not sure if you knew this, but the cheese industry has been very important to Sheboygan County since the 1870s.

The same can’t be said for federal agencies. In fact, the Office of Personnel Management doesn’t list cheese or any specific food manufacturer in their list of job series. There is 7401 – General Food Preparation and Serving that includes cooking, bartending and even meat cutting, but sadly nothing about cheese.

Grothman was trying to make a point about federal employees needing to return to the office, but his analogy, like most from lawmakers, fell flat.

Just like Sen. Joni Ernst’s (R-Iowa) jab at federal employees back in April.

“Every day is ‘Wear Your Pajamas to Work Day’ when tens of thousands of bureaucrats are working from home,” Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), posted on X on April 16, which happened to be National Wear Your Pajamas to Work Day.

Did Ernst know about some sort of “off the books” celebration at the Neal Smith Federal Building in Des Moines, Iowa, which includes 800 federal employees from more than 40 agencies, who were all wearing their pajamas to work?

By the way, did you know National Wear Your Pajamas to Work Day started in 2004, by Pajamagram as a reward for the late nights working on taxes. If you are keeping score, the 2025 National Wear Your Pajamas to Work Day is April 6.

But I digress, the return-to-office debate continues to boil over. Republicans continue to criticize federal employees and the Biden administration for what they see as waste and abuse.

No one size fits all for return to office policy

Democrats and the Office of Management and Budget are defending agency leadership to make decisions for how often federal employees need to come into the office based on what’s best for their agency’s mission.

Brian Elliott, executive advisor around the future of work and an expert on workplace culture, said both sides are missing the point and talking past each other.

“I think a big part of this is what you’re getting, is there’s no one size fits all for this because different jobs and different roles have different requirements. They always have and they always will,” Elliott said in an interview with Federal News Network. “The private sector has been grappling with this for a while too, and I work with companies that have a wide range of practices. But they figured out the moments that matter for a sales team are different than those for an engineering team or a finance team. But you would never apply one uniform set of rules to everybody and expect it’s actually going to work the same.”

Exactly why Grothman’s cheese manufacturer analogy or Ernst’s comments on what federal employees are wearing are the type of comments that rankle so many people and stops the real discussion from happening.

First off, as Jason Miller, the deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, told lawmakers at the April 30 hearing four different times, over half of the federal workforce can’t telework because of their job responsibilities. That means more than a million federal employees — those who protect the border, secure the airports, inspect food and provide medical care to veterans at hospitals — are commuting, most likely are wearing business clothes — though hospital scrubs could be considered pajama-like — and working outside of their homes.

Miller said of the remaining 40% to 49% of employees working in everything from technology to human resources to processing tax returns or disability forms, about 80% of them are in the office at least half the time, which equates roughly to two-to-three times a week.

But just like before the pandemic, just being in the office doesn’t necessarily mean work is getting done.

Gauging productivity remains difficult

Elliott said it’s this reason and the concept of work being what you do, not where you do it, is why public and private sector employers have to change how they gauge productivity. He said this new view is a struggle no matter what sector you are in.

“We have to stop trying to measure activity, stop trying to measure the number of days a week somebody shows up, or the number of keystrokes they hit, and start figuring out what outcomes you’re trying to drive,” he said. “With most organizations, when we get deeper into this, you realize that you might be able to define productivity for a subset of the jobs, like customer service, which is one that you can usually put a yardstick against. You can measure quantity of output and quality of output. But you can do that regardless of where the human being is doing that customer support. It literally does not matter. But other work is much more complex. The important stuff is interdisciplinary, cross functional in nature, complicated problem solving and really hard to put a yardstick on.”

Elliott pointed to a story from an executive at the National Science Foundation who said the number of grant applications that came in peaked during the pandemic, but they were able to serve them just as well during that time period.

The focus, he said, is what is driving mission outcomes, not “sweating telework classifications” or other meaningless proof points.

“We’re very used to communicating, collaborating, doing work and even building relationships online. I have talked with senior agency leaders who will talk about the fact that the people above them, in the appointment suites as well, aren’t in the tools that their teams are using on a day in, day out basis. If your only familiarity with the digital tools your teams use is the occasional Teams call or Zoom call, and you’re not in Teams or Slack itself, watching the work happen, then it’s not surprising that when you come back into an office space and you don’t see a lot of activity, you’re then worried, are they really working?” Elliott said. “The same thing has happened in the private sector. The thing that I’ve done with a number of executives is literally show them how these tools work. We get into it enough so that they feel comfortable, so they can actually see the work that’s happening, that otherwise they’re missing out on. There’s definitely a transition here that has to do with generational differences in how we communicate.”

Elliott said it’s more than just using communication and collaboration tools. It’s the transformation across many sectors and in many offices that occurred over the last four years.

Fairness doctrine, not really fair

He said this entire discussion comes back to this core issue of how do agencies or companies know if their employees are really working if they’re not physically in an environment where they can monitor them and put my eyeballs on them?

“That is the least effective way of measuring productivity and outcome that exists. It’s an input-driven mechanism. The equivalent would be if I’m going to put keystroke monitors on people’s laptops because the way that they actually produce something is through typing. So once you measure the number of keystrokes, you can go on Amazon.com and buy a mouse jiggler for $25, stick it into the side of your laptop and it will keep your mouse active for eight hours a day or however many hours you want to. And you can actually program in the number of pauses you want it to have. These systems can easily be gamed. You’re much better off instrumenting outcome driven metrics on top of this,” Elliott said.

Elliott added the other side of the argument is often referred to as the “fairness doctrine.” He said what’s fair to office workers should be what’s fair to frontline employees. But Elliott said that so-called doctrine is faulty.

“Frontline workers have to show up on the front line, and office workers don’t have to, and some will say that is unfair. There is an equality versus equity set of things that’s happening within this though. We already pay office workers more than we do frontline workers. That’s been true for eons,” he said. “What it’s really about is how do I attract workers for what is often the hardest jobs to fill these days? It’s those call center jobs. It is the fact that you’re investing a different type of flexibility for those workers, not just work location, which you can’t always give them, but flexible schedules. Giving people the ability to swap shifts, giving people flexibility when it comes to how many shifts they take per week, helps you attract more people into those jobs and retain them. What you’re after is, can I measure how good a job they’re doing at delivering for my customers? Not that they show up.”

That gets us back to the land of cheese and whining. If Grothman, and other lawmakers, want to make sure federal employees are using taxpayers’ money appropriately, serving citizens effectively and not abusing their privilege of working from home, they should demand to see the data and hold agency leaders accountable for meeting mission-focused goals. The workplace has changed, the remote work cork isn’t going back in the bottle, so both supporters and detractors should stop arguing over what was or used to be, and focus on measuring agency mission success in serving citizens.

Nearly Useless Factoid

By Michele Sandiford

The term “telecommuting” was first coined in 1972 by Jack Nilles. At that time, Nilles was working remotely on a complex NASA communication system.

Source: Allied Telcom


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