Telework may be the recruitment and retention solution agencies — and Congress — are looking for

Some agencies have outgrown their formal telework policies in the pandemic, and they're using full-time remote work arrangements to entice new employees and ret...

Federal agencies may have finally outgrown their telework ways.

It just took a global pandemic to help them realize it.

“Not a day goes by that I don’t have managers and supervisors tell me how amazed and delighted they are at how well 99% telework is working,” Sydney Rose, chief human capital officer for the Labor Department, said Wednesday during a hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management. “I always ask, ‘Well what did you expect?’ And they stop and say, ‘Well gee, I don’t know, but I’m just really surprised and happy that it’s going so well.'”

Labor recently completed its annual performance evaluations for the workforce. Employees’ performance plans include specific metrics that are tied to broader agency goals, Rose said, and the department hasn’t seen any appreciable decrease in productivity since nearly full-time telework began in mid-March.

Transportation surveyed its managers, and 55% said their work units were more effective during the pandemic than before, said Keith Washington, the department’s deputy assistant secretary for administration.

It’s why Transportation is considering a new remote policy for its workforce that may allow the department to offer jobs to qualified applicants regardless of how close they are to the office.

“We’re hoping that if we can broaden the applicant pool nationwide, we can really recruit and retain employees at a better rate,” Washington said. “We’re continuing to assess that. We’ve learned a lot over the last few months. We’re trying to make that business case before going forward with our remote policy.”

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), the subcommittee’s chairman, said he sees remote work policies as being especially beneficial to the spouses of military members or border patrol agents, for example, who may struggle to find work in a remote location.

“This opens up a lot of options for those spouses to help the federal family, not to mention a lot of other people who want to work in other areas,” he said. “What would prohibit you either in the regulatory space or with statutory requirements… from hiring people who you literally never plan to meet?”

For at least some agencies, not much.

“It’s more of a culture change,” Washington said. “I’m not aware of regulatory or statutory barriers. In fact, there could be cost savings. If the employee is working in Oklahoma or a rural area where the cost-of-living and locality pay is cheaper, there could actually be cost savings associated with that.”

Labor is already implementing those kinds of full-time remote work arrangements.

“It was a paradigm shift for some of our managers and supervisors who have had their eureka moment,” Rose said. “Now suddenly I have an applicant pool that is the entire United States, not just the Washington, D.C. metro area. We are routinely announcing jobs at this time for all locations, no longer just a Washington, D.C. duty station or a Chicago, Illinois, duty station.”

Rose said one-third of her human resources staff have and will continue to work remotely on a full-time basis because of where they live. She recently retained an employee whose husband received military orders to Germany. That employee will continue to work for Labor from Germany, Rose said.

“It’s the best, and we have found that employees outside the Washington, D.C. area stay longer,” she added. “They are happy to stay working with the agency that recruited them and hired them. Employment in Washington tends to be a revolving door, and we just steal people from each other. It just goes around and around. I’m delighted that we can now access a much bigger applicant pool of very qualified people.”

Agencies could uncover new cost savings with lower locality pay — and by freeing up office space, said Michelle Rosenberg, acting director of strategic issues at the Government Accountability Office.

“When GAO moved to expanded telework, it enabled us to reduce our footprint both in our regional offices and reduce the amount of leased space,” she said. “In our headquarters building, it enabled us to rent out parts of our headquarters building to other agencies since we had [fewer] people who needed physical space.”

Though Labor and Transportation were enthusiastic to embrace telework and evolve their workforce and hiring policies for a virtual world well beyond the pandemic, not all agencies may be quite as eager.

The Social Security Administration made a variety of changes to its telework program in the weeks before the pandemic. Jim Borland, SSA’s deputy chief information officer for IT operations, said the agency made those changes because it lacked measures and tools to determine telework and its effectiveness.

“At SSA, telework is not one-size-fits-all,” he said.

Not all SSA jobs are conducive to telework, even as the agency has developed service workarounds and remains largely remote today during the pandemic, Borland said. Most SSA field and local offices are still closed to the public and accept appointments for “dire-need” cases only.

Still, Borland said he didn’t see any regulatory or statutory barriers that would prevent agencies from having employees work from anywhere.

“Whether it be provisioning security credentials, laptops or cell phones, [or] providing training, that work can be done remotely,” he said. “The workforce can be remote. We have been addressing public services on our 800-number, and we have new 800-number agents who received all of their equipment, their security credentials, their onboarding, their orientation and their training, and they have been working from home.”

Are legislative changes ahead for telework?

Wednesday’s hearing was the latest effort by the Senate subcommittee to learn more about the telework changes agencies have made during the coronavirus pandemic.

Lankford said he’s considering legislative changes to the Telework Enhancement Act, which Congress passed into law 10 years ago.

“With so many changes in the world, it makes sense to take a close look at the current telework policies and strategies in the federal workforce,” he said. “The current pandemic has acted as a magnifying glass for telework policy improvement.”

Lankford and his subcommittee heard from private sector employers this summer, who described the tools and methods they had developed to manage their workforces remotely.

He urged the agencies present at Wednesday’s hearing to continue to share ideas with the Senate subcommittee on ways to improve federal telework policy.

“We’re going to continue to work on this, because this is a paradigm shift for how we work as a federal government,” Lankford said. “We’re opening up a much larger pool of individuals who are eligible to be able to work with us and with greater flexibility on some of the tasks that we have. We will always have in-person, and we should always be here in Washington, D.C. with our agency heads and all of those things… But we have millions of people around the country who would love to be able to serve their country by serving in one of these agencies.”

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