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Federal employees at the National Science Foundation may soon see more opportunities for telework and remote work, but it’s not the only upcoming change for the agency’s workforce.
One of many new provisions under NSF’s collective bargaining agreement with the American Federation of Government Employees now lets eligible federal employees officially telework up to four days per week. The two parties signed off on the four-year agreement on Nov. 17, after negotiating for more telework, flexible work hours, learning and development opportunities and much more.
Many of the updates in the new agreement came from lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, now solidifying how the agency has operated for the last couple of years. Union negotiations were opening up with AFGE around the same time that the agency was starting to think about its future telework and remote work policies, said Bill Malyszka, NSF’s deputy chief human capital officer.
“The stars aligned perfectly to have all of those conversations coincide,” Malyszka said in an interview with Federal News Network. “As we went into the fall [of 2021], and got ready for reentry in the spring of 2022, we were really pinning down with our labor partners what the terms were going to be for our new telework and remote work posture. It was a lot of work, a lot of engagement of our workforce, a lot of management discussions, but everything along the way was as deliberate and as inclusive as we could make it.”
In October this year, many NSF employees started working under a temporary full-time telework arrangement. This coming March, the two parties will review the updates to the collective bargaining agreement and make adjustments as needed to the telework and remote work policies.
Before the pandemic, the agency was just “dipping its toe” into the world of telework, but recently, the agency has become more open to it, said David Verardo, president of AFGE Local 3403, which represents NSF employees.
“The discussion was very thoughtful and very robust. It was quite enjoyable to talk with other folks about, ‘what are the lessons learned from COVID? What can we adopt at NSF?’” Verardo said in an interview with Federal News Network. “The consensus was that we could do our work remotely, but there was also consensus around potential pros and cons.”
Some of those pros and cons came to light during NSF’s efforts to reach out to employees to get their feedback on workplace flexibilities. Across all of the data NSF collected, the numbers remained very consistent, Malyszka said, with many employees voicing their desire for more telework and remote work options. But expanding those flexibilities revealed some worries, too.
“Their concerns were around maintaining connection and culture with their colleagues,” Malyszka said. “By reducing physical proximity to coworkers, it also oftentimes reduces emotional proximity or connection to other people … There was interest in expanded flexibilities, but then there was also this concern of what were the organizational costs of expanding those flexibilities?”
The agency has tried to make changes, though, to ensure teleworking employees feel included and connected to their coworkers. Many of those efforts start with the initial onboarding process for new employees, an experience that at NSF, doesn’t end in just the first few weeks on the job.
“We really focus on a yearlong experience where we facilitate networking events and roundtables for people to tap into different topics that during the first week or two on the job they might not think of,” Malyszka said. “But as they get into their jobs, [we look at] things like performance management, how to access mentoring and coaching, or just how to navigate and connect outside of your area.”
Beyond onboarding, NSF leaders also try to incorporate more intentional ways of making employees feel included in the long term. For instance, a new “team norming exercise” focuses on how to improve collaborations on distributed teams, where employees on the same team work in different physical locations. Team leaders look at communications, collaboration and expectations, and encourage intentional engagement among coworkers.
And NSF has seen some of these efforts come to fruition. Over the last decade, NSF had year-over-year improvements in the results of the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. For instance, job satisfaction has steadily increased each year, from 66% in 2012, up to 83.4% in 2021. NSF also ranked second overall for mid-sized agencies in the 2021 Partnership for Public Service’s Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings.
Other than adjusting the telework and remote work policies, there are several other new and updated provisions in the collective bargaining agreement. For one, NSF is offering a “maxiflex” work schedule for all of its employees, which lets them complete their workday anytime between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.
“We had a lot of success during the pandemic with people that needed to take an hour or two off in the middle of the day, and either go to the gym, take a walk, run errands [or] clear their head, and then come back. What we’re trying to do is create a platform for people to be able to have the flexibility to come to work and do their best work,” Malyszka said.
Another provision in the collective bargaining agreement expanded eligibility for NSF’s after hours program, which gives employees tuition sponsorship from the agency. The program has been around for several years at NSF, but the agency and AFGE have now agreed to broaden it to include all non-executive employees, rather than limiting it to employees earlier in their careers.
“We really want to ensure that if [our employees] are committed to their own development and growth and learning, then NSF will be alongside them,” Malyszka said. “We also see this as a great way to have those long-term commitments be there for not only retention, but also helping [employees] to become leaders at NSF, either through practice or through actually moving into leadership [roles].”
“NSF has always referred to itself as a learning organization, and I think now we can really put an exclamation point on that, because we’ve really expanded our learning opportunities,” Verardo added. “That’s a huge change for the agency and I think a big feather in our cap. It’s unique to compared to other organizations.”
In the collective bargaining agreement, NSF and AFGE also agreed to establish a student loan repayment program, turn an alternative dispute resolutions pilot into a permanent program, and implement an electronic performance system.
In the coming months, the two parties will revisit the current telework and remote work arrangements. Just as the agency “dipped its toe” into expanding telework a few years ago, it’s now starting to do the same for fully remote work, Verardo said. It will be about striking a balance between the value of in-person interactions, and the space to work remotely and independently.
“It’s going to be tough come March, just to see how far people are willing to go with the remote work,” Verardo said. “What our contracts in 2020 and 2022 represent is a movement by labor, management and NSF to just act as coworkers, and [think about] what kind of environment we want to build that encourages people to come to work every day, whether it be at home or in the building. That’s not something to be taken for granted — it takes a lot more work to have a good [labor-management] relationship than a bad one … We’re hoping that other parts of the government can emulate what we do here.”