The telework question has settled into stasis

Here is why agencies can't settle on a post-pandemic telework policy, and likely won't.

If you are waiting for comprehensive policy guidance from your agency powers-that-be on telework, my advice is: Don’t hold your breath. Keep doing what you are doing, whether traipsing in daily, a couple of times a week, or fully remote.

To quote the great philosopher Dr. Seuss: “Everyone is just waiting.”

Agency heads are thinking about it all the time. But the question of who should be able to telework and how much has too many variables.

  • Is there “equity” between cubicle-knowledge people, whom we now know can be fully remote no problem, and those with location-specific jobs who have to commute and keep definitive hours: equipment maintainers, border patrol agents, TSA screeners, Social Security field office helpers… That list goes on and on.
  • Do we have equity between teleworkers and those who can’t work from home because of circumstances managers may not know about? Maybe someone hoards and can’t be seen on Zoom. Maybe a spouse is also there, dealing with rambunctious children and barking dogs. Maybe someone’s house has insufficient broadband.
  • What about office space, what everybody calls the federal footprint. Maybe tuchus-print would be more accurate because we’re discussing seats. But few agencies seem willing to undertake a definitive reduction in space to move to the hot-desk model, in which you take the family picture and peanut butter jar back home with you when you depart.
  • Have agency technology staffs ensured employees can reach all the files and applications they need from wherever the employees happen to be? At the IRS, examiners sometimes have to look at four different systems for a single taxpayer. And what if a case file for the IRS or any agency consists of paper and lies out of reach of computers?
  • External pressure from Congress. The Show Up bill from House Republicans would return telework to January 2020 levels, but probably won’t pass. In Washington, D.C. itself, though, where city official thinking aligns with congressional Democratic thinking, the pressure continues to get feds back to the office or clear out permanently. A phenomenon cited by the D.C. mayor and by several feds I’ve spoken to cites the winking out of small businesses, especially restaurants. To some extent this is happening everywhere. Owners of a cheese shop in New York’s Little Italy said it will close after a mere 130 years in business. Business was off so much because of reduced foot traffic that its owners couldn’t pay the rent.
  • Tribal wisdom in the human resources world holds that without the option of telework or remote work, organizations cannot attract people to come work there. Whatever the reality, if that’s what HR thinks, it carries weight. At least, it makes heads of agencies or companies pause on the idea of hauling everyone in.

At a  panel discussion on IT modernization the other day, I asked a couple of federal managers at large agencies what signals they were getting from the appointees suite.

Cara Rose, a deputy association commissioner of Social Security, said Acting Commissioner Kilolo Kijakazi gathers data and listens closely. Social Security, under the Trump administration’s commissioner, Andrew Saul, had issued memos demanding people stop teleworking. Then came the forcing function of the pandemic.

Nathan Sanfilippo, who works in the Veterans Affairs Department’s Veterans Experience office, said the looser telework policies are settling in as people realize how much planning, policy and analytic work occurs remotely without apparent problems.

The desire for telework may prevail among younger workers, but it’s not their desire exclusively. Since my last column on this topic, one reader, who says she’s had 30 years of federal service and still doing strong, wrote: “I … only go into the office the minimum of twice a pay period. I can tell you I am much more productive working at home.” She cited the benefits of fewer distractions from kibbitzing co-workers, less time and money spent commuting, more sleep, and more time with family.

Hard to tear people away from that. Public opinion polls show that nearly two thirds of working people prefer the hybrid model, and a third would opt for fully remote. Only the leftover sliver favor full-time in the office. What’s your view? As always, feel free to email me a few words.

Ergo, definitive new policies won’t materialize any time soon.


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