Time to evaluate how well telework, work-life programs are running, OPM says

Agencies have new guidance from the Office of Personnel Management on how they can more strategically evaluate their telework and other work-life programs.

Employees who telework or use one of their agency’s work-life programs boosted their performance, morale, health and ability to manage stress, according to past OPM studies. Federal employees who telework are often more likely to stay within their organizations, the agency said.

OPM isn’t disputing the benefits of these programs like telework, but it is urging agencies to develop ways to track and measure those results.

“Evaluation of these programs has historically been unsystematic and based primarily on anecdotal evidence and/or the desire to ‘do the right thing,’ which impacts the agency’s ability to make effective, data-informed decisions on how to efficiently invest in work-life efforts,” the OPM guidance reads. “In applying work-life programs within the government, we must take seriously our responsibility to do so consistently with the best interest of the American people we serve.”

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The Government Accountability Office in 2016 recommended OPM help agencies better evaluate the effectiveness of their telework programs.

OPM developed this guidance in response to the GAO recommendation, Mark Reinhold, OPM’s associate director for employees, said in a memo to agencies.

Specifically, OPM described how agencies should first identify their organizational and employees’ needs and then determine what work-life programs and services could influence them. It detailed how agencies can use a variety of employee demographic data, retention rates, performance appraisal ratings and engagement feedback to measure the performance of those programs.

Individual agencies have been successful piloting telework or new work-life programs and then measuring their success.

The National Institutes of Health, for example, learned that a back-up child and dependent care program would allow employees to continue working when their regular care providers are unavailable and telework isn’t an option.

A work-life program service provider collects data on employee participation, satisfaction and missed work days on behalf of NIH, OPM said.

“Reports from NIH’s service provider show that, whether employees use the program or not, it supports their work, effectiveness and morale,” OPM said. “The program benefits intramural, clinical and extramural research programs because this important work can continue where it might otherwise be interrupted.”

In addition, the Patent and Trademark Office described the tools it has to measure the effectiveness of its telework program. About 55% of PTO supervisors told the agency in 2017 their participants were able to better balance work and family life due to telework. PTO also reported savings that year of $46.2 million on office space and other expenses.

OPM’s latest guidance comes as several agencies in recent months have made changes to their telework programs.

The Interior Department tweaked its program to require employees to report to the office two full days every two weeks. It also prohibited regular telework for the agency’s supervisors. The Education and Agriculture Departments have both limited telework to one day a week.

And at least one office within the Department of Health and Human Services implemented a similar limit on telework. A recent decision from the Federal Service Impasse Panel allowed HHS to set an “expectation” that employees report to their worksites at least four days a week.

The National Treasury Employees Union recently surveyed 1,600 members at HHS and 700 employees at the Social Security Administration’s Office of Hearings Operations about their perceptions of telework.

Five out of six HHS employees said the reduction or elimination of telework would factor into their decisions to find new jobs or retire, according to the NTEU survey.

“In the modern world and with so many smarter options now available, why is this even a discussion,” an HHS employee said in response to NTEU’s survey. “We’re going backwards, period.”

NTEU National President Tony Reardon urged HHS Secretary Alex Azar to reconsider the agency’s approach to telework.

OPM encourages telework, other flexibilities during heat wave

Amid severe heat and humidity on the East Coast and across much of the country, OPM on Wednesday encouraged agencies to allow their employees to use additional telework and other workplace flexibilities.

“With supervisory approval and to prevent work disruptions, a telework-ready employee may telework from home on a day when air quality conditions are poor,” acting OPM Director Weichert wrote in a memo to agencies. “Additionally, if permitted by agency policy, an employee working a flexible work schedule may choose to adjust arrival and departure times to avoid commuting during the hottest periods of the day.  Employees may also request annual leave, earned compensatory time off, or credit hours on a day when severe heat and humidity are threatening to the employee’s health and welfare.”

NTEU, however, recognized what it perceives as mixed messages from the administration on telework. OPM issued a similar memo earlier this year to urge agencies to consider telework and other flexibilities ahead of this summer’s closures on the Washington, D.C. Metrorail system.

NTEU said some agencies, such as the Patent and Trademark Office and Nuclear Regulatory Commission, actively allowed employees more telework and flexibilities. Others did not.

“While we welcome OPM’s focus on employee health and safety, this new memo, once again, clearly illustrates the value of the very program too many agencies and managers are trying to eliminate,” Reardon said in a statement.

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