Back to the office, begrudgingly? What agencies can learn from CISA’s office reentry plans

Love it or hate it, but more federal employees are coming back into the office next month.

Perhaps you’re rolling your eyes at that sentence if you’re one of the 633,000 employees at the Postal Service who have helped get stimulus checks, mail-in ballots and free COVID-19 rapid tests to households every day for the past two years.

Or maybe you’re one of the 50,000 transportation security officers at the Transportation Security Administration who, no matter...

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Love it or hate it, but more federal employees are coming back into the office next month.

Perhaps you’re rolling your eyes at that sentence if you’re one of the 633,000 employees at the Postal Service who have helped get stimulus checks, mail-in ballots and free COVID-19 rapid tests to households every day for the past two years.

Or maybe you’re one of the 50,000 transportation security officers at the Transportation Security Administration who, no matter what, still showed up and screened passengers at airports.

For a myriad of reasons, some employees have had to work in-person for the entire pandemic, putting themselves at a higher risk of COVID-19 infection.

Still, federal employees working white-collar office jobs might feel underwhelmed at the prospect that, after two years of agency HR officials thinking out loud about the “future of work,” they find themselves once again commuting into an office, sitting in a cubicle and dashing off emails that could just as easily have been sent while working from home.

President Joe Biden, during his State of the Union address, made it clear why he wants the “vast majority” of federal employees back in the office.

“It’s time for Americans to get back to work and fill our great downtowns again. People working from home can feel safe to begin to return to the office. We’re doing that here in the federal government,” Biden said.

Some federal employees might not be thrilled at the prospect of going back into the office, but they shouldn’t prepare for business as usual, circa March 2020.

Biden, in a letter to the federal workforce, told agencies to “build on the innovations and technologies that we put to work serving the American people throughout the pandemic, making our government more efficient, resilient, and effective.”

In other words, telework is here to stay. But what does that mean for the average federal employee, especially one whose supervisor wants staff back in the office ASAP?

The return to the office, of course, is going to vary greatly by agency and component and will remain the subject of debate for unions and management.

But consider how the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, the latest agency to outline their office reentry plans, is trying to manage the balance between in-office days and telework.

CISA Director Jen Easterly, in an all-staff email obtained by Federal News Network, announced a three-phased transition back to the office.

Easterly, in the March 1 memo, said the option of 100% telework and “maximum telework,” which the Office of Personnel Management and the Department of Homeland Security approved at the height of the pandemic, will no longer be authorized for CISA employees beyond March 31.

“As such, those who were taking advantage of 100% telework or maximum telework will need to start reporting to a CISA facility for a minimum of two days per pay period starting in April,” Easterly wrote.

Employees cleared for telework, but with an official duty station at a CISA facility, will soon be required to report to that facility for a minimum of two days per pay period.

Easterly tells staff the remote work employees, who have their home residence listed as their official duty station, “can remain in a remote work office status.”

CISA leadership may grant remote work in any part of the U.S. “regardless of proximity to CISA offices,” as long as that arrangement meets operational requirements.

Some regional staff, for example, are assigned to work in home offices, but are required to be within a certain proximity of a state capital or other geographic boundaries, while other positions may require the employee to remain in the same time zone.

Other jobs, however, “may not have any geographic limitations at all.”

As for the next steps, CISA supervisors will start setting up conversations with employees within the next two weeks to confirm their work location and schedule.

Employees determined to be telework eligible, based on these talks with their supervisors, will need to complete a new telework agreement by March 25.

The memo also outlines preparations for CISA employees who started work during the pandemic and have not yet worked from their official duty stations.

CISA employees who have been reporting to their duty station on a daily basis “can continue to do so without any changes.”

“I recognize that this transition will be challenging, particularly given our current operational tempo,” Easterly said.

CISA employees have a forum to voice their office reentry concerns. The agency last week held a town-hall meeting to answer employees’ questions about the return to the office.

Easterly also directed managers and supervisors to hold all-hands meetings about this topic, and has made staff from the Office of Chief Human Capital Officer available to help set expectations.

CISA stands out as an interesting case study for office reentry. It’s the latest DHS component that’s moving into the 176-acre DHS campus at Saint Elizabeths West in Southeast D.C.

DHS and the General Services Administration have worked on this DHS campus project for more than a decade. It’s the largest federal building project since the Pentagon.

Small wonder, then, that CISA wants a critical mass of employees to come into the office.

On the other hand, much of CISA’s mission happens in cyberspace. CISA and other agencies have also spent much of the pandemic thinking about telework and workplace flexibility as a way to attract in-demand cyber talent.

They’ve also looked at remote work as a way to broaden recruiting efforts and hire experts in the field who might not live anywhere near the D.C. metro area — or any other major U.S. city.

Meanwhile, Rob Shriver, the associate director for employee services at the Office of Personnel Management, said in a GovExec webinar last week the agency is still thinking over the future of work in government.

Shriver said agencies are going to have to revisit their old telework agreements and reevaluate telework eligibility, now that a broad swath of the pandemic-era federal workforce has done so out of necessity.

Your mileage may vary, but Shriver said federal employees who previously teleworked only occasionally may now want to have regularly scheduled telework days.

And workers who previously teleworked once a week might now want to do more than that.

“A lot of people who previously were in jobs that were not thought of being amenable to telework at all, are now going to find that, at least on a situational and occasional basis, if not on a regular basis, that telework is an option,” he said.

Shriver said agencies also need to rethink their attitudes about remote work — that is, staff who aren’t expected to regularly report to an office, if at all.

“Where the federal government is now is looking at remote work from that strategic perspective. We need to stay competitive with the private sector to recruit and retain top talent, and we’re not going to be able to do that if we just go back to the way things were prior to the pandemic,” Shriver said.

So what, if anything, has your agency said about your office reentry plans? Let us know at JHeckman@FederalNewsNetwork.com.

Nearly Useless Factoid

By Robert O’Shaughnessy

A hive of bees has to fly over 55,000 miles to produce 1 pound of honey.

Source: National Honey Board

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