With agencies preparing for the future of work, Ahuja says OPM is ready to help

As agencies contemplate and continue to plan for the future of work, the Office of Personnel Management is trying to let agencies know they have some help — and some new resources — to guide them through the unknown.

The agency is preparing to release more guidance on telework and remote work “very soon,” OPM Director Kiran Ahuja said in an interview with Federal News Network.

It’s all part of an effort to help agencies establish themselves as model employers that can meet the moment — and part of OPM’s own plans to reestablish itself as a human capital resource for the rest of government. They’re priorities Ahuja set in the early days since becoming OPM director, and they’ll continue well into 2022 and beyond, she said.

The guide will offer, in some detail, advice for agencies on making the shift to remote and hybrid work.

“We want to support what’s involved in our lives around flexibilities and child care but also knowing that we can be really productive,” Ahuja said. “We have this guide coming out. We’re also pulling together trainings and information around how to manage in a hybrid work environment and how to operate well in a work environment, as well as a new website focused on future of work.”

OPM, along with the General Services Administration and Office of Management and Budget, released an initial tranche of guidance on telework and remote work earlier this year, which explained how agencies could make the kinds of flexible work arrangements they’ve offered throughout the pandemic a more permanent fixture inside their workplaces.

So far in navigating this new world, agencies have largely operated within the bounds of current law and regulation to expand telework and remote opportunities for employees.

Ahuja said she’s thinking about telework and remote work policy in “incremental steps,” and OPM is actively considering whether new legislation is necessary to make these still-relatively new changes permanent.

“The 2020 Telework Act had a version of what we envisioned telework to be,” she said. “Certainly we are having discussions internally and with the Chief Human Capital Officers Council, which has been a great resource for us, around how we think through these ideas. We are pulling this all together to evaluate the limitations we know that exist in the law and how we might want to think about where we want to build in more flexibilities.”

Institutionalizing telework and remote work in the federal government will be an “incremental” process, Ahuja acknowledged, especially as employees, supervisors and others haven’t always embraced these flexibilities in the past.

“We have a real opportunity in this moment of sorting ourselves through the pandemic in so many different ways to really show up as a model employer for the federal government,” she said. “Being the largest employer in this country, we have an opportunity to really set the tone.”

Government should be ‘winning’ race for mission-focused talent

Reinforcing the federal government’s role as a model employer is one of Ahuja’s top priorities as OPM director, as is helping agencies rebuild their workforces.

And with less than 8% of the federal workforce under the age of 30, OPM and the administration is especially focused on appealing to early career talent.

“They are motivated by mission-driven organizations,” Ahuja said. “We should be winning on that point.”

OPM published two hiring regulations in recent months. One allowed agencies to rehire former federal employees to positions at a higher grade level than when they left government. Another allowed agencies to more easily recruit and hire student interns.

A third regulation geared toward hiring recent graduates to federal positions is coming soon as well, Ahuja said.

The recent student intern policy and the forthcoming recent graduate regulation will give agencies a leg up in recruiting talent now, she said. But she acknowledged the existing Pathways internship program remains a challenge for many agencies.

Agencies offered 60,000 paid internships in 2010, compared to just 4,000 in 2020, and naturally, they’re hiring fewer interns as well. According to a 2020 budget request from the previous administration, agencies hired 35,000 interns back in 2010, compared with just 4,000 in 2018, an 89% drop.

“We are working to fine-tune Pathways as we speak,” Ahuja said. “We have been, again, working with our amazing CHCO Council to understand those pain points and really tweak them. There’s a real commitment from us to pull that together.”

“I know Pathways is a pain point, and we are on it,” she added.

Ahuja and the leaders of other federal agencies will make a concerted effort to better publicize the opportunities young people can have in government — and sell the benefits of being a federal employee that she said are often overlooked. She and Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) delivered a similar message to students at George Mason University earlier this month.

“The federal government is a pathway to a good-paying job,” Ahuja said. “You can be unionized. You get a generous set of health benefits. You can think about retirement early.”

Beyond helping other organizations staff up, OPM is focused on rebuilding its own workforce — and reestablishing itself as the human capital resource for agencies. The National Academy of Public Administration offered a long list of recommendations to OPM, Congress and the Biden administration earlier this year.

“OPM is building. It’s reinvigorating itself,” Ahuja said. “From the great advice we got from the NAPA report to really the energy within the agency, we are positioning ourselves, well I hope — I know — to really be an asset to our agency partners and to be a strategic human capital leader. That is my focus.”

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