Lankford: Time to ‘reinvent the wheel’ on telework in federal workforce

A few senators are considering how the ongoing pandemic might shift and transform a decade-old telework policy for the federal workforce.

It’s been 10 years since Congress set broad standards for the federal workforce in the Telework Enhancement Act.

But the law may seem outdated today, especially considering the leaps and bounds several agencies made to move large swaths of their employees to telework during the initial days and weeks of the coronavirus pandemic.

“It makes sense to take a look at the current telework practices to see what is working, what is not working for the federal workforce and be able to learn the lessons of what’s happening in the private sector,” James Lankford (R-Okla.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs and Financial Management, said Tuesday at a hearing on private sector telework practices. “We have a responsibility to ensure federal workforce strategies are relevant, cost effective and well thought out.” 

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Tuesday’s hearing was the first in a series on how federal agencies and Congress can “reinvent the wheel” when it comes to telework, said Lankford.

“The last time this was done was 10 years ago,” he said. “Obviously there’s a lot of lessons that have been learned, and we want to make sure we capitalize on those lessons and implement those as fast as we can across the federal workforce in the days ahead.”

According to OPM’s most recent report on the topic, 22% of the federal workforce teleworked at some point in fiscal 2018. About 42% of the workforce was eligible for telework that year.

“We need to reevaluate eligibility and how this is determined,” Lankford said. “Clearly we have more than 22% of our federal workforce that is actually teleworking now.”

Many agencies quickly moved their employees to full-time telework in days, with several large departments expanding their remote IT capacity as the pandemic progressed.

“How do we best prepare employees so that during a future disaster or pandemic, we can seamlessly transition to a federal [remote] workforce posture? How do we effectively train managers to stay engaged and monitor the performance of a remote workforce?” Lankford said. “I want to make sure cybersecurity threats are seriously considered in the telework policy conversations.”

Lankford and subcommittee Ranking Member Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) heard from four private sector leaders, all of whom have some degree of experience managing a remote workforce. And though it’s unclear how their experiences might inform new, specific telework policies for the federal workforce, their experiences shed light on how the government might shift its own thinking.

Under current government telework policies, federal employees usually can’t work from home and take care of their children or an older family member at the same time.

Many agencies have eased up on those policies and set flexible work hours for employees to balance both responsibilities during the pandemic, but private sector organizations say there’s room for these flexibilities to continue even after the health crisis.

“As long as you empower your managers and your employees to make decisions that work for their families but also allow them to work accomplish their work outcomes and those are clear for them, we find that our employees are very flexible with their own lives,” said Michael Ly, CEO of Reconciled, an online accounting firm. “They appreciate the flexibility that they’re being given. With the responsibility of being able to work from home, they take that seriously and they flex their own personal lives to be able to get their jobs done, as well as the needs of their families.”

Deloitte, for example, plans to invest and support its employees working from several spaces even after the pandemic, including the field, home and a traditional office setting, which is quickly transforming to more of a “community space” where people can gather and collaborate, said Sean Morris, a principal at the company’s government and public services practice.

“An organization must consider its human capital to be a core asset and build its technology and facilities accordingly to achieve a successful work environment,” he said.

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To stay connected with their workforce and build relationships with newly onboarded employees, several private sector companies said they’ve found ways to keep their teams engaged.

Ly’s company holds “virtual lunch rooms,” where employees can join an open Zoom video session at a certain hour and check in with their coworkers.

Morris said Deloitte too has moved team building exercises online, as well as other meetings and one-on-one check-ins between employees and their supervisors.

Those regular video chats and check-ins are crucial, because the meetings help employees and their managers better understand and set specific performance metrics and goals, said John Zanni, CEO of Acronis SCS, a cybersecurity company based out of Arizona.

“In most cases when you can’t access whether people are doing their job or not, part of the problem… is it’s the managers themselves who haven’t thought through what they want them to do and how to measure it,” he said. “It’s hard, but once you do that then these questions of, ‘I haven’t heard from James Lankford in two days, I wonder if he’s actually working,’ they come up very, very rarely. You just look at the results or the output.”