Senior Executives like the latest return-to-the-office plans

Senior executives say they are OK with the latest White House return-to-the-office guidance. The Office of Management and Budget issued the guidance a couple of...

Senior executives say they are OK with the latest White House return-to-the-office guidance. The Office of Management and Budget issued the guidance a couple of weeks ago. It emphasizes what it calls organizational health, and calls for a lot of data gathering. For one perspective,  Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with the Chairman of the Senior Executives Association, Marcus Hill.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin All right. And so the SEA kind of likes what has come out from the Office of Management and Budget. It seems to offer a way to both telework and get people back in the office if needed.

Marcus Hill Yes, we were pleased that OMB decided to really emphasize a data driven approach to determining or assessing agency, organizational health and performance. And we’re hopeful, as they continue to work with agencies to develop their work environment plans, that they will literally work closely with agencies and various stakeholders to help develop those plans. So we were definitely pleased that they emphasized the data driven approach. However, we were not as pleased with their lack of stakeholder engagement up front in developing these plans.

Tom Temin So it kind of just came out and then go ahead and go at it type of feeling.

Marcus Hill Yes, because most of these agencies, Tom, as you know, have been working diligently on these reentry plans for a while since we started migrating back to sort of a pre-pandemic norm. So I think that OMB, in our opinion, sort of reacted based on President Biden’s and the Congress’ ending of the national emergency responding to the COVID pandemic. Obviously, telework has been a centerpiece of that politically, with the desire to return, I think, as many employees back to the workplace as possible. But we’d just like to encourage OMB and those working on these plans not to necessarily reset to a pre-pandemic mindset, but to take those lessons learned from the pandemic, to hopefully expand the use of telework and remote work.

Tom Temin And of course, your own federal career was in large measure in law enforcement and law enforcement training. People in federal law enforcement, and there’s probably 60 or so units of law enforcement throughout the federal government, they necessarily are on location wherever they happen to be. Those are not office jobs. Do you sense that there’s maybe not tension between those that by virtue of the type of work, need to be at work, as we classically understand it, and those that can telework because it’s all computer type of stuff?

Marcus Hill We haven’t heard that concern from our constituents. I think that most of them understand that there are certain positions that require an in-person presence of the majority of the time, but there are a lot of support positions that are probably best performed in a telework situation or remote work situation. And so we’re just advocating that OMB and [Office of Personnel Management (OPM)] and others within the administration really take an opportunity to evaluate the positives, as well as those improvement opportunities associated with telework remote work under the auspices of organizational performance and health. And really move us forward, because we believe that the pandemic basically accelerated some of these workplace of the future initiatives, which we’ve had the opportunity to test drive for about three years now. And so, I think there are probably lots of studies that are in place that will share the data, that will help these agencies make informed decisions.

Tom Temin I think the need for remote work also accelerated the technological developments that are needed to support it, because they were pretty primitive. Some of these tools at the outset and by a couple of years in and now two or three years later, they are pretty good.

Marcus Hill Absolutely. And what we’re doing today is a demonstration of that.

Tom Temin Yes, we are on a call by a commercial platform that does video conferencing in reasonably good sound. And you do sound good from your home in a distant state from where I am. And by the way, we are speaking with Marcus Hill. He is chairman of the Senior Executives Association, retired SES himself. And this idea of organizational health, what does that mean precisely? I mean, there are measures you can look at like the best places to work rankings and other results in the Federal Employee Viewpoint survey. How many people leave versus the percentage that stick around. What, in your experience, are good measures of organizational health? That’s kind of a nebulous word.

Marcus Hill Yeah, I think the federal government relies on the Federal Employee Viewpoint survey to really gauge organizational health by evaluating the survey results on that. I think they conduct that survey on an annual basis. So I think that’s a great key indicator as it relates to those areas within that survey that draw upon obtaining feedback from the workforce, in terms of how they’re feeling about certain things, their ability to accomplish the mission the evaluation of their performance by their supervisors and so forth. So I think that is definitely great to, obviously, keep your finger on the pulse of your organizational health, because obviously, if it’s not in good stead, these agencies are at risk of not really being able to accomplish their missions. And I want to make one point. So during the pandemic, obviously, we were challenged and we had to pivot hard to go to this telework and remote work environment. So I’d just like to really highlight the fact that, and my understanding is no missions fail. None of these agency missions fail as a result of pivoting to a more robust telework and remote work environment. So again, we just need to continue to move forward, in terms of evaluating those lessons and really applying those things where they make sense to apply.

Tom Temin Right. If you look at, say, the SBA, which is in a little bit of hot water for the amount of pandemic loans that turned out to be fraudulent or will never be paid back, the low end estimate of $60 billion. But that’s not a result of having people telework. It’s a result of whatever controls they didn’t have in place. Just as an example of where telework itself didn’t seem to cause any degradation of services.

Marcus Hill Absolutely. And we’ve heard a couple of examples recently from some of our constituents regarding their experience with the Social Security Administration, and not necessarily being able to access the the customer support that they feel is relevant, in terms of really responding to their claims and so forth. And we don’t believe that’s a telework issue, it’s a staffing issue. In this case, I think that the technology certainly exists to assist with bolstering customer service. But literally, I think this telework remote work would be advantageous to help recruit and retain customer service workers, such as those working at the Social Security Administration.

Tom Temin And is your sense of who should make these decisions about the levels of telework, who should telework and who needs to be in the office, the questions about organizational health. Those will fall to the senior executives, in your feeling versus the political appointees who may be gone by the time something is even evaluated for an agency.

Marcus Hill Absolutely. These career leaders are charged with ensuring the continuity of their agencies as we move through the various political administrations. So they are in the best place to make these decisions. I think that by and large, most of them are, if not all of them, are focused on making sure that they can deliver to the American people every day the services that the taxpayers are paying for. And again, just the magnanimous job these agencies did through the pandemic, in terms of being able to sustain their missions is commendable. And so my hope moving forward is that the administration, OMB, OPM, really, I understand they realize that. But take the opportunity to award these leaders by making them an inclusive part of the decision making upfront as it relates to certain memos like the one we just saw released from OMB.


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