How two agencies are thinking about a post-pandemic, partially remote federal workforce

As federal agencies approach the year-mark since they first directed the vast majority of their employees to work from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some chief human capital officers are looking forward.

The workforce will look differently than it did before the pandemic, they acknowledged, with some employees reporting to an office and others working from their homes in various locations across the country.

“There’s a lot more work than we thought that could be performed fully remotely,” Jane Datta, associate administrator and chief human capital officer for NASA, said Tuesday at an ACT-IAC virtual resiliency summit. “That then opens the door for us to consider what workforce needs there might be that could be addressed by full time telework or remote work. It’s really a way to keep people blending their work and home lives, addressing their particular needs for how they want to work. This idea of it being distributed and driven by the needs of the workforce, presuming that what they want still allows us to get all our work done, is a slightly different twist on how we might have approached it pre-pandemic.”

So far there hasn’t been an organized, governmentwide discussion about the future of remote work post-pandemic.

But some agencies are having those discussions individually, and they’re debating how they’ll approach everything from permanent telework arrangements and recruitment, to leases and locality pay.

The Treasury Department is putting together an inter-disciplinary project team to study the long-term implications of a partially remote or hybrid workforce, said Trevor Norris, the department’s deputy assistant secretary for human resources and chief human capital officer.

“We’re trying to take the long view, because we think that it is a strategic opportunity that’s not going to come around very often,” Norris said Tuesday. “We’re trying to uncover all of the issues, especially in human capital policy.”

At NASA, the agency is considering how a remote and hybrid workplace might open up new professional development opportunities to existing employees. With geography no longer a barrier, employees could accept a detail at another NASA center without having to physically relocate.

“It gives many more opportunities for people to have developmental and rotational assignments or be redeployed to meet work needs, beyond what we even thought was possible pre-pandemic,” Datta said.

Chief human capital officers at multiple agencies have said full-time remote work opportunities could open the doors to a broader recruitment pool than previously imagined. Some agencies have hired new employees on a permanent remote basis during the pandemic.

“We are going to have access to talent pools that we’ve not traditionally been able to reach effectively,” Norris said. “Certainly the debate over the effectiveness of telework as a mission enabler is over. We saw that in the last administration and the new administration coming in the door is openly and freely acknowledging that. We will certainly see a blended and distributed workforce, which is going to be a force multiplier from the diversity front. We know we will be much more effective for it.”

Datta said NASA has been wrestling with the definitions of telework and remote work. The agency always had some employees who worked in a state where there isn’t a NASA facility, but she said those arrangements were the exception, not the rule.

After the pandemic, the agency may have more of those remote arrangements, Datta said.

“We’ve also identified mechanisms within the current regulatory framework to allow us to say if your workplace is your home then you’re a remote worker,” she said. “Then the locality pay is the locality pay of where you live. [We’re] starting to try to sort out the options that we could consider for working within the framework. For the CHCOs, this is on the list of things that we might be tackling or asking [the] Office of Personnel Management to help us tackle.”

Meanwhile, the virtual environment has placed additional pressures on supervisors, who are still learning how to manage a remote workforce, Norris and Datta said.

The Treasury Executive Institute offers some curated learning experiences on leading virtual teams, Norris said. The department also pulled together some resources on being a good virtual team member or supervisor, which are posted on Treasury’s learning management system.

When it comes to making decisions about individual employee telework arrangement, supervisors and mid-level managers are often in the “hot seat,” Datta said.

Some managers still prefer seeing their employees face-to-face, she acknowledged. It’s why NASA is exploring some kind of mechanism where employees could appeal remote work issues.

“Having both the administration and also leadership support of this, it’s really hard to do this well if you don’t have that,” Datta said. “We’re lucky. We have a very forward leaning leadership group at our agency that really wants to get the mission done and is really passionate about the mission but also recognizes that we’ve been really productive, and there’s no reason why we need to go all the way back to the way we had done things before.”

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