Remote work arrangements spark new questions about old federal workforce policies

As agencies put the final touches on their reentry and post-pandemic workforce plans, they face new questions about old travel and locality pay policies.

Agencies are putting the final touches on their reentry post-pandemic workforce plans, and many of them are seemingly ready to expand telework and remote work opportunities to eligible employees.

But in some cases, those conversations and planning exercises have raised new questions about old workforce policies, said Rob Shriver, the Office of Personnel Management’s associate director for employee services.

“The policy is there to support remote workers, but there may be some obstacles and disincentives,” Shriver said last week at a virtual event produced by GovExec. “We are taking a look at that and working with stakeholders to see if there should be changes involved.”

Take locality pay and travel, for example.

In guidance issued to agencies last month, the Biden administration said employees who work remotely on a full-time basis — that is, they don’t come into the office at least once per pay period — should receive the locality pay associated with the location of their work site, not their office.

That’s a relatively simple policy for agencies interested in allowing more employees to work remotely, perhaps hundreds of miles away from their agency’s traditional offices.

But it’s more complicated when agencies want their employees to occasionally travel to the office, perhaps for a conference or regular meetings in-person with their colleagues and supervisors. Do agencies foot the travel bill?

“Some agencies have raised that as an obstacle to them approving more workers for remote work because of the budgetary impact,” Shriver said. “You can see the other side of that story as well, which for the employees, is it fair to put them on the hook for those travel costs? It’s tough, because maybe a benefit of being a remote worker is that you get to work from your home, but a cost is on the rare opportunities where they need to bring you in, you have to cover that. That’s an important policy discussion we need to have.”

OPM and the Biden administration are having those conversations. Shriver said the administration envisions an environment where remote work is integrated into “the fabric of the federal worker experience,” potentially opening up job opportunities to people who don’t live near major cities or popular federal centers.

“As agencies start to look at the workforce of the future and how they’re recruiting talent, it is exciting that this is a new door that is open that’s not previously been available — and can be part of their strategic workforce planning [and] can help them compete with private sector companies that are already doing this,” he said. “Certainly what OPM wants to be doing is making sure that we have the policy structure in place to support agencies as they attempt to take advantage and recruit in this new way.”

The pandemic prompted agencies to start these new policy conversations. But the old debates over the federal hiring process haven’t gone away, either.

OPM surveyed federal employees and supervisors earlier this year about the skills they believed were necessary to succeed in their jobs. The surveys were part of the federal workforce competency initiative, which OPM revived this spring.

The agency is reviewing data from those surveys now, Shriver said.

“When we get that data about these competencies, that allows us to not only help inform recruiting efforts and training and reskilling efforts, but it also helps design competency based assessments, which are a really important part of the hiring process,” he said.

The vast majority of agencies still ask job candidates to rate their own skills and abilities through a self-assessment. But those assessments have fallen out of favor, as OPM has focused on improving the quality of candidates and new hires within the last year or so.

The Trump administration explicitly directed agencies to eliminate the use of self assessments and instead design tools that actually measure a job candidate’s skills and abilities. That work, however, has proven difficult for some agencies, who may lack the expertise and resources they need to design new assessments — and subsequently use the results to inform their hiring decisions.

OPM sees its latest competency survey initiative as a way to give agencies a leg up with that work. OPM itself can use the feedback to build its own governmentwide hiring assessments, but individual agencies can use that data to develop their own, Shriver said.

“When you invest in this competency work, it helps throughout the hiring process,” he said. “It helps you figure out what the qualifications should be for specific jobs, it helps you figure out where you should be recruiting. Then when you get people responding to your job announcements, it helps you assess those people and have the best qualified people really come to the top of the list, then you make your selection. And the hiring managers wind up having higher satisfaction levels with those selections over time.”

Improving the federal hiring process has long been a goal for OPM and the federal HR community, and it’s no different for the Biden administration.

OPM in June finalized a new policy that will allow agencies to rehire former federal employees at a higher grade level than when they left government, which Shriver said should help organizations quickly fill vacancies.

OPM will also examine how agencies recruit and build partnerships with colleges, universities and other potential sources of entry-level talent. But in order for those partnerships to be worthwhile, interested students and recent graduates need a clear entryway into federal service, Shriver said.

“We see the data about younger people having difficulty accessing federal jobs. There’s a lot to that,” he said. “Some of it is just that the agencies have been so understaffed, that when they get an opportunity to bring new people on they’re often looking at senior level people who can hit the ground running and wear multiple hats at the same time because that’s what they need. As the government begins to build back and staff up we think that agencies will begin to once again refocus on their talent pipelines from entry level on up. We’re going to take a fresh look at our policies around internship and recent graduate programs. Those could use some fresh eyes, and we need to see if those are really facilitating agencies bringing talent in at that level.”

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