Make telework decisions based on the job, not ‘managerial preference,’ OPM says

Agencies are knee-deep in planning and preparing for more federal employees to return to the office. And when it comes to telework, many are reconsidering their old ways.

The deadline to submit reentry and post-pandemic workforce plans to the White House passed last week, and many agencies are still fine-tuning or drawing up more specific policies that will dictate how individual offices will implement telework and remote work options in the future.

To help them prepare, OPM on Friday night released 38 pages of guidance and answers to frequently asked questions, designed to inform agencies in developing new telework policies and encourage more flexibility for the future.

OPM said it developed this new guidance in partnership with the Chief Human Capital Officers Council and the General Services Administration.

“In light of the steps agencies undertook at the outset of the pandemic, OPM expects that many more federal employees will be eligible to telework on a regular basis post-reentry,” OPM Director Kiran Ahuja wrote in the new guidance. “Agencies should start reassessing schedules for and frequency of telework, based upon the experiences of the last 15 months, and re-establish them in a way that best meets mission needs (including the agency’s ability to compete for qualified candidates and retain talent).”

Some employees may want to return to pre-pandemic schedules or telework only on occasion, OPM acknowledged.

“Agencies should work through these decisions in accordance with agency policies looking not only at the primary functions of the job, but also at other responsibilities that may be amenable to being performed during occasional or regularly scheduled telework days,” OPM said. “Agencies may wish to take this opportunity to adjust their telework policies to reflect a new understanding about how telework has worked at their agencies.”

The new guidance covers everything from telework and locality pay decisions to disciplining employees who refuse to comply with agency reentry plans.

The guidance falls within current law, but OPM encouraged agencies to recommend potential regulatory changes that might more easily expand telework and remote work options to the federal workforce.

Here are seven highlights and takeaways from OPM’s new telework and remote work guidance.

Make telework decisions based on job, not manager preference

Data shows agencies quickly and significantly expanded telework last year during the pandemic out of necessity, but here OPM acknowledges some managers remain opposed to the practice when given the choice.

Instead, OPM encouraged agencies to treat employees performing comparable jobs and tasks similarly when making telework decisions — and revisit the data often to ensure employees are meeting their missions.

Agencies should also decide whether new employees or positions are telework eligible — and reconsider the status of employees who were previously ineligible.

Telework isn’t an entitlement for working in the federal government, and agencies shouldn’t use it as a performance management tool or an incentive, OPM said.

“Rather, agencies should leverage their experiences with expanded telework during the pandemic to institutionalize telework programs as a routine way of doing business,” OPM said.

Telework vs. remote work

Employees with a telework agreement can work remotely but still must report to their duty station on a regular basis during each pay period, usually no less than two days every two weeks.

Under a remote work arrangement, employees can telework from their homes without the expectation that they come into their offices on a routine basis, OPM said.

Employees must request remote work arrangements and receive approval from their agencies.

“An agency should decide, at the outset, whether it will permit remote work. If it does, and believes requests for remote work may recur, it should establish a clear process by which an employee can make a request to work remotely,” OPM said. “The agency policy could include requirements to conduct a formal and complete assessment of benefits and costs to determine if the arrangement is cost effective for the government and the agency.”

Agencies should consider whether remote work could serve as a tool to recruit and retain in-demand talent, help employees better balance their lives and potentially achieve real estate or other cost savings.

It may also allow agencies to expand their talent pools and tap into a more diverse group of candidates, said OPM, which will soon publish a new guide on remote work.

Agencies that choose to allow remote work more often should also consider publishing clear guidelines that explain the criteria for receiving such an arrangement, so employees don’t perceive favoritism or unfair treatment, OPM said.

Employees face discipline if they fail to comply with reentry plans

Federal employees may face disciplinary action if they fail to comply with their agency’s reentry plan or recall orders, OPM said.

There are, however, exceptions. Employees with an administratively acceptable reason may receive an exception. Otherwise, agencies will consider employees who fail to return to their work sites after receiving a recall order absent without leave (AWOL).

They’re subject to disciplinary action, which includes removal, OPM said.

At the same time, returning to the office will be a big transition for a portion of the federal workforce, and OPM encouraged agencies to work with their employees to address personal circumstances.

Agencies should reevaluate telework and dependent care restrictions

Before the pandemic, most federal employees with young children or others requiring dependent care generally couldn’t telework unless another caregiver was home.

Agencies today should reconsider that position, OPM said.

“An agency that has a general bar on teleworking when there are young children or other persons requiring care and supervision by the employee in the home should reevaluate that policy in light of its experience during the pandemic,” OPM said. “In many instances, these policies assume a rigid adherence to specific work hours. Agencies may want to consider offering teleworking employees with dependent care responsibilities a maxi-flex work schedule, which is a type of flexible work schedule (FWS) that, when combined with telework, provides the most flexibility to employees who need to address the dual demands of work and caregiving, as well as other personal responsibilities.”

Telework and remote work: It’s not for everyone

Performance standards for remote workers should be the same as those employees working in person, OPM said.

“Such alternative work arrangements come with challenges and require new skill sets for the employee unfamiliar with working in dispersed or virtual teams, and for supervisors unfamiliar with managing dispersed or virtual teams, so not every position or every employee is suited for this arrangement,” OPM said. “Agencies may want to consider multiple factors, including individual work style preferences, team dynamics, and job characteristics, when making decisions about whether to permit remote work in particular instances.”

Agencies should consider new training for supervisors on managing remote or hybrid teams, OPM said, and employees must be well-versed in their organization’s policies and practices.

In general, OPM said there should be “no significant difference” between managing the performance of remote workers and employees working from an office or other site.

“Like non-teleworking employees, teleworkers and remote workers are held accountable for their performance against applicable performance standards. Managing performance of teleworking or remote employees may require the supervisor to rethink and expand techniques for observing and evaluating work in progress.”

Collective bargaining is encouraged

The Biden administration has urged agencies to bargain with employee unions over their reentry plans, though the details of when and how these negotiations should occur depend on the specific collective bargaining agreement.

OPM explicitly encouraged agencies to bargain over their reentry plans before recalling the workforce back to the office, though it’s ultimately up to each department to determine where employees work.

“Since many employees have been on maximum telework status for an extended period of time and
agencies have made adjustments to many workplace policies, procedures and practices for safety
reasons, any direction to return to the worksite will likely result in changes to conditions of
employment that must be negotiated with relevant federal employee unions,” OPM said. “An agency should provide notice to the union(s) and a reasonable opportunity to bargain over these changes.”

Agencies and unions might bargain over, for example, how much advanced notice they’ll give employees before requiring them back to work at the office, safety procedures for in-person work and how these plans and decisions will be communicated to the workforce, among other topics.

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