When it comes to telework, there’s no question agencies have a vastly different approach today than they did over a year ago, when fewer than a quarter of federal employees spent time working remotely.
But after a year of improvising, many agencies see value in making some pandemic-era workforce policies permanent.
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It’s why the Office of Personnel Management is reviewing current laws, regulations and lessons learned from the last year, with the goal of providing agencies with new guidance to use as they craft their own post-pandemic telework and remote work policies.
“Now the question is as we begin to emerge from the pandemic, as vaccines become more readily available, are we turning back the clock? At least as far as OPM is concerned, the answer is no,” Rob Shriver, the agency’s director of employee services, said Wednesday at a Federal Computer Week summit on telework. “There’s no interest in returning to a February 2020 footing. There has been so much good work that has been done out of an emergency that has really been transitional and transformational for the government.”
New telework or remote work programs are already in the works at several agencies, including the Agriculture Department, which recently announced an agencywide review of all positions to determine whether they can be completely virtual.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development is redesigning its own telework program and is soliciting employee feedback, said Priscilla Clark, the agency’s deputy chief human capital officer.
Just 3% of HUD employees teleworked every day before the pandemic. About 93% of the agency’s workforce is teleworking daily during the pandemic, Clark said.
The Air Force is looking into hoteling space inside the Pentagon for its employees, who may split their time between in-person and remote work.
“There’s a lot of discussion right now about going through and really assessing how much of our staffs can telework, how many of our [employees] want to telework and who just really can’t because of the nature of their jobs,” said Lauren Knausenberger, Air Force chief information officer. “I don’t want to get out ahead of the department on the percentage, but it’s a pretty aggressive percentage that we want to target for telework or for kind of a hybrid model.”
On first blush, current governmentwide policy seems to support agencies who want to offer more frequent telework schedules for their employees after the pandemic, but OPM is still reviewing it, Shriver said.
“A one-size-fits all approach is likely not going to work, but there continues to be an interest in maintaining these flexibilities and making sure that OPM policy facilitates that, rather than impedes it,” Shriver said.
Remote work, or the concept of allowing employees to permanently telework without the requirement that they visit the office once every two weeks, poses more challenges.
“That’s opened the door to lots of new recruiting techniques,” Shriver said. “It’s made government work accessible to parts of the country where it wasn’t necessarily accessible previously, and it’s also raised a host of management and operational concerns that we’re working through and need to address.”
Locality pay is one of those concerns. The current system doesn’t inherently address situations where, for example, an employee lives and works remotely from an expensive locality pay area such as Washington, D.C. or San Francisco, but the office is located in a less expensive area, or vice versa.
“These are the issues that we’re wrestling with when it comes to pay administration,” Shriver said. “You can see a theme here. The system was designed with the assumption that people would be coming into the office.”
With the COVID-19 vaccine supply growing and eligibility expanding to include all adults by May 1, Shriver acknowledged agencies may be eager to receive guidance from OPM soon.
“This administration’s commitment is to worker safety,” he said. “There’s going to be notice of any changes. There’s going to be time to work through this and make sure that we’re prioritizing the safety of the federal workforce. Having said that we are feeling the pressure that we’re getting guidance out to agencies as soon as possible.”
Many agencies have allowed federal employees to work odd hours to accommodate child and elder responsibilities during the pandemic.
OPM is exploring whether it can make some of those flexible work hour policies more permanent after the pandemic.
“The government has supported employees in balancing all of those different considerations,” Shriver said. “Employees have stepped up and shown that, given that flexibility, they continue to be very mission-driven and committed to serving the American people, they are working the time that they need to work to do their jobs. The existing laws, regulations and policies don’t really contemplate that for the most part. Even with respect to flexible work schedules, they contemplate coverage during core hours. There’s a lot to work through on this.”
Individual agencies are also finding other ways to support their employees.
HUD has surveyed its employees to learn about their stresses and needs while working from home. Based on their feedback, the department allowed employees to come into the office to pick up additional monitors to use at home, Clark said.
NASA, for example, is considering whether employees could tap into unused commuter benefits to purchase ergonomic chairs or desks to use at home.
“These are ideas that have been generated in terms of finding our costs,” said Shannon Meehan, acting director of NASA’s executive services division. “We’re paying for leases, for printers at the office, and those aren’t being used in a way that they were before. What if we sunsetted those leases and revectored those costs?
As agencies adopt more flexible work policies, supervisors may need more training and guidance to help them manage employees working both in person and remotely, Shriver said.
“Some people are fantastic teleworkers, and they are even more productive when they’re working remotely than when they are in the office,” he said. “Other people struggle more with it; it’s just a reality. How do we manage that? How do we help people succeed in this new world? We’re diving into that and thinking about not only policy, but what supports need to be in place for our managers across the government.”