First Look

USDA launches agencywide review to explore telework, fully virtual options after pandemic

Employees at the Agriculture Department are beginning to learn exactly what senior leadership had in mind when they teased new telework and workplace flexibilities earlier this month.

At his first townhall since returning to the department, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack told employees of his plans to loosen the agency’s prior telework policy and adopt a new one. A new USDA telework policy, he said, was a “starting point” as the department considered other options.

A new memo, which Federal News Network obtained, describes the concrete steps USDA will take to expand telework and workplace flexibilities at the agency.

Most notably, the department is launching an agency-wide review of all USDA positions to determine whether some of them could be completely virtual.

“I am asking mission areas, agencies, and staff offices to begin a strategic and equitable review of the current duty stations of their positions, current and planned recruitments, and to identify those positions that may be effectively performed either remotely or virtually beyond the pandemic,” Vilsack said.

The memo, dated March 11, is addressed to USDA administrators, staff office directors, chief operating officers and human resources directors. USDA employees received the memo via email Thursday.

A USDA spokesman confirmed the plans to Federal News Network.

As Vilsack acknowledged, some USDA positions such as firefighters, inspectors and laboratory personnel aren’t conducive to permanent remote work. But the experience of the last year has shown that for other jobs, permanent remote work is possible.

“There could be great benefit to having staff of all levels of our organization living and working in the very communities that USDA serves,” Vilsack said. “Over the last year, USDA employees have played a vital role in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic while continuing operations of government, and a significant portion of USDA employees have done their work remotely. In addition to the increased availability of telework, we want to evaluate positions that are suitable to be located at virtual duty stations, allowing greater flexibility to secure talent wherever it exists.”

USDA’s review represents a significant step forward as agencies across government discuss how they might make some pandemic policies permanent once the health crisis is over.

Chief human capital officers at several agencies have described an interest in offering fully virtual positions as a way to attract top talent from anywhere in the country.

In conducting its reviews, Vilsack urged agency subcomponents to collect employee feedback and publicize the results with staff.

As expected, he also formally rescinded the 2018 USDA telework policy, which allowed employees to work remotely up to one day a week.

“The changes to the telework policy made in 2018 had significant negative impacts on employee morale and retention, as well as USDA’s ability to recruit top talent,” Vilsack said. “Therefore, the January 2018 telework policy is repealed.”

In the interim, USDA will adopt the policy it launched back in 2014, which allowed employees to telework up to four days a week.

“We trust that our managers will implement this guidance in an equitable way in keeping with our commitment to our staff while making sure USDA programs are accessible to all and delivering on USDA’s mission,” the memo reads. “Going forward, USDA job announcements for telework-eligible positions should reflect the ability to telework up to four days per week, based upon the duties of specific positions. Supervisors and employees must also jointly review and revise existing telework agreements as necessary. In making any revisions to telework agreements, labor management agreements must be followed.”

The interim policy gives USDA senior leadership time to solicit feedback and permanently revise the USDA telework policy.

The department will design and launch surveys to gather employee and supervisor ideas “on what work at USDA should look like in the post COVID-19 era,” Vilsack said.

“Rolling back the 2018 telework directive is an immediate, first step but not the end point,” Vilsack said. “To re-envision USDA’s workplace, including space utilization, we need everyone’s ideas – employees, supervisors (including senior leadership), unions and recognized employee organizations.”

In the meantime, maximum telework is still in effect at USDA, and Vilsack made no mention of when that policy might relax.

He pointed to USDA’s COVID-19 workforce safety plan, which the department updated last month, and guidance from the White House and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as the driving factors behind any decisions moving forward.

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