Will telework ever be the new normal?

A strange bit of irony occurred last week.

The Office of Personnel Management offered up its annual report to Congress on the state of telework in the federal government — from two years ago.

The report seems, to say the least, out of date, especially through the eyes of today’s pandemic. It takes OPM about a year to collect, sort and arrange the data it receives from dozens and dozens of agencies.

But the newly released data from 2018 reflect a world that couldn’t seem farther from the present moment. When it came to telework two years ago, many agencies seemed stuck in the Dark Ages.

Now large swaths of the federal workforce are working from home in their sweatpants.

The 2018 results were mixed. About 22% of federal employees teleworked at some point in 2018, a 1% bump over the previous year. But that total reflects even the employees who teleworked a single day in 2018. And unlike this past winter, the Washington metro area did see a few snowflakes that year.

Telework eligibility fell slightly in 2018, though several agencies attributed the decline to attrition or poor data collection methods.

No surprise, the General Services Administration had an active telework program. At least 81% of its workforce teleworked that year, which allowed GSA to save $24.6 million in real estate and $6 million in administrative costs a year.

The Patent Trademark Office, long considered a gold standard for telework in government, increased eligibility to nearly 94% of its workforce in 2018.

Smaller agencies especially seemed on the ball back in 2018. The Office of Government Ethics had more than half of its employees teleworking three days or more a week. At the Securities and Exchange Commission, 44% of its employees teleworked three days a week or more; another 44% spent one-to-two days a week working remotely.

It was a different story at other agencies.

The Defense Department had just 15% of its workforce teleworking in 2018. Telework was a reality for 35% of the workforce at the Agriculture Department and 33% of NASA employees.

Telework participation decreased for the Small Business Administration in 2018, which the agency attributed to “increased in-person support for disaster assistance” due to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.

Intelligence community agencies, perhaps unsurprisingly, had few employees teleworking in 2018. A single person was eligible for the situational telework program at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

At the FBI, 54 people teleworked at some point in 2018, but at least 22,760 employees were eligible.

When asked about their goals for telework and management’s plans to promote and adopt it, some agencies gave telling answers.

“The USDA goal is to increase our ability to meet customer needs and satisfaction,” the report read. USDA had reduced the number of days a week its employees could telework in 2018.

Interior said its leadership supported telework and recognized it as necessary during emergencies.

The Education Department said it aimed to have at least 5% of its eligible employees teleworking. The department said it had worked with managers and the union to promote a greater use of telework, though Education had reduced the number of days its employees could work remotely in 2018.

“Last year, we began a major initiative to improve the workplace at the Department of Education by building greater employee performance and productivity through innovative space designs and technology enhancements. This initiative included working extensively with our principal offices to evaluate their positions to determine the frequency at which these positions were able to telework,” the 2018 report read.

Employees gave Education’s new telework policy low marks in a 2019 survey.

The Treasury Department acknowledged the moves USDA and Education had made in the past year.

“While Treasury leadership shares some of the same concerns regarding face-to-face interaction, knowledge sharing and a focus on customer service in the office, Treasury continues to support telework and the value it brings to our employees and the mission,” the report read.

We don’t know exactly how many federal employees are teleworking today, and based on the publication of OPM’s prior telework reports, it may be a while until we know for sure.

Until then, it seems reasonable to ask: will telework be the new normal?

It’s certainly the new normal now.

In the last few weeks, we’ve already heard about the Pentagon’s massive effort to bring remote capabilities to 900,000 users via an IT service that didn’t exist until the pandemic. Voice of America quickly purchased more laptops to bring more than 80% of its employees online.

Employees at the Social Security Administration have told Federal News Network how, despite the cuts made to their program earlier this year, they’ve continued to process payments for the public because of telework.

So will agencies — especially those who previously insisted their employees could only be productive at their office desks — embrace telework with open arms whenever the pandemic ends?

Will agencies maintain their networks, laptops and phone systems so thousands of employees can continue to connect remotely, regardless of the next pandemic or blizzard?

Will supervisors — with potentially months of experience managing their employees remotely — feel assured their colleagues are getting their work done?

And will agency leaders convene to make major policy decisions over Zoom, or whatever the next video platform of choice is?

One thing seems certain: agencies should have plenty of data, ideas and lessons-learned to help them get there if they choose.

Nearly Useless Factoid

By David Thornton

The small country of Kiribati consists of 32 atolls and one raised coral island in the Pacific. These small islands are spread across both sides of the Equator and the 180th meridian, making Kiribati the only country to exist in all four hemispheres.

Source: Wikipedia

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