First Look

In new guide, OPM urges agencies to weave telework, remote work into workforce culture

The Office of Personnel Management on Friday released a new guide on telework and remote work, which it said should help agencies update their current workforce...

Agencies are treading carefully into a new era, one that contemplates what public and private sector experts are calling, “the future of work.”

To help them make those decisions, agencies got more advice from the Office of Personnel Management, which released a new telework and remote work guide on Friday.

It replaces guidance OPM originally published on these topics back in 2011, when the original Telework Enhancement Act was less than a year old.

The landscape today has changed significantly over the last decade.

“The effects of the COVID-19 global pandemic have prompted a significant interest, nationwide, in using telework and remote work as an important tool for safely and efficiently delivering mission-critical services in the public and private sectors during emergencies,” OPM Director Kiran Ahuja said Friday in a memo to agency leaders, which describes the new resources. “Agencies demonstrated that they have been able to continue to carry out their missions effectively. As a result, agencies now have an opportunity to revisit how they were operating prior to the pandemic and leverage lessons learned to integrate telework and remote work into their strategic workforce plans.”

The guide doesn’t describe new policy, and the laws surrounding telework haven’t changed. Agencies are still, as OPM has said previously, working within the bounds of existing laws on telework, locality pay and travel, among other topics.

“While this guidance focuses on assisting agencies in updating their current policies, we expect to continue our examination of telework and remote work policies over the coming years as agency operations evolve, and as the federal government further defines a broad vision for the ‘future of work,'” Ahuja said.

The latest guide builds on prior guidance from OPM and the Biden administration — and provides perhaps the most comprehensive tool to date for agencies interested in building or expanding remote work programs. OPM also has a new website with future of work resources.

In a statement, Ahuja said the new guide should serve as a model for both the public and private sectors to follow.

The telework portion of OPM’s guide offers mostly reminders. It’s still up to each agency, for example, to enter into written telework agreements with members of their workforce, and agencies have the discretion to allow telework depending on their mission and business needs.

Telework isn’t supposed to substitute dependent care, and some agencies prohibit their employees from working from home when children or older adults needing care are present. OPM encouraged agencies to reconsider those policies and others.

“Agencies, however, are encouraged to re-evaluate their telework policies in light of the experiences gained during the pandemic,” OPM said. “Agencies should strive to fully integrate telework into their culture, providing all employees (other than those legally prohibited from doing so) the opportunity to telework at least occasionally.”

The Biden administration has said it isn’t sure exactly how many federal employees are teleworking at the current moment. Data from the most recent Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey found 59% of the workforce teleworked every day at the peak of the pandemic last spring, with 47% teleworking daily last fall.

In contrast, just 3% of federal employees teleworked daily before the pandemic, while 22% of the workforce engaged in some kind of regular or situational telework in 2019.

About 56% of the telework-eligible federal workforce used the flexibility in 2019, compared to 90% of eligible employees the following year, according to data from OPM’s future of work website.

Remote work benefits are real, but not for everyone

Remote work, the idea that employees perform their job duties at a location away from their normal work site and without returning regularly to that site, is a more of a novel concept for some agencies.

The federal government has been using remote work more frequently since OPM began tracking it back in 2013, the agency said.

“Remote work arrangements can help organizations recruit new employees with hard-to-find skillsets or help agencies retain current employees who move due to spouse relocation, dependent care, upcoming retirement or other life events,” OPM said. “However, these types of flexible work arrangements require a little more intentionality, thought and planning because they raise various logistical and policy issues, including reassignment of official worksite, pay and reimbursement for travel, etc., which to date have created certain disincentives for agencies to approve them in all but limited or very rare instances.”

It’s up to each agency to decide if they want to offer remote work in the first place, and agencies have the authority to determine how they’ll use it and which positions and employees are potentially good candidates for these alternative work arrangements, OPM said.

Based on their experiences during the pandemic, some agencies are considering remote work policies for broader swaths of their workforces. Both the General Services Administration and NASA have said they’ll offer such arrangements to certain employees, and the Agriculture Department is considering it as an option as well.

Agencies should think about whether a remote work policy will be broad, meaning a large number of employees with a variety positions will be eligible for the program, or whether it’s best to use it for high-performing employees or those with specific skillsets, OPM said.

OPM suggests agencies consider a wide variety of factors when establishing remote work programs, ranging from the benefits such arrangements will bring to the organization, team and employee to the resources needed to function in a new environment.

They should also consider the costs of relocating employees and whether agencies will foot the bill, OPM said.

The answer, OPM said, might depend on who initiated the remote work request in the first place.

When it comes to travel — a topic that’s raised some questions among human capital experts in the last year — OPM suggests agencies think about how often remote workers might need to come into the office.

“OPM recommends bringing remote workers into the agency worksite at least bi-annually in order to build camaraderie, commitment to the agency’s mission and productive communication among employees,” the guide reads.

Those who live outside the agency’s local commuting area are eligible for travel reimbursement when they do return to the work site for official duties, and OPM suggested agencies weigh those costs when making decisions about a particular remote work arrangement.

Not every agency, program or employee is well-suited for remote work, OPM warned. Agencies have the right to approve or deny an employee’s request for remote work.

“Promising candidates for remote work are self-directed and require minimal supervision,” the guide reads. “Additionally, while such employees must be able to work independently, they must also be responsive to the organization, team and customers. That means keeping a high profile (not out of sight, out of mind), keeping supervisors and co-workers informed about the status of projects pending and completed and pitching in to help when needed. They should also be comfortable not having day-to-day contact with colleagues. Establishing and maintaining a culture that supports remote workers will help the agency recruit the right candidates for remote work positions.”

OPM recommends agencies primarily establish remote work arrangements based on specific job and duty-related considerations, which it said will go a long way toward limiting concerns about fairness or preferences of a particular manager.

Despite the leaps and bounds agencies have made in last 19 months in expanding telework and remote, some managers still have concerns about supervising employees they can’t physically see, OPM acknowledged.

“To some degree, remote work may pose greater challenges for effective performance management of remote workers for supervisors,” the guide reads. “To successfully navigate within the structures and procedures of a fully virtual work environment, managers must be more deliberate about how and when they communicate with employees who rarely report to the office. They also must understand how to measure and account for performance against established performance standards for the position while building connections with employees when they cannot see them.”

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