White House tells agencies to strike a balance between telework, in-office work

Federal agencies have new guidance from the White House on their return-to-office and telework policies.

The Office of Management and Budget called on agencies to try to strike a balance between adding in-person work where necessary, while still maintaining telework flexibilities.

Agencies are expected to increase “meaningful” in-person work at federal offices, especially at headquarters offices, OMB said in a memo published Thursday.

OMB said meaningful in-office work is “purposeful, well-planned and optimized for in-person collaboration.”

At the same time, agencies should continue to use more flexible policies on employees’ work locations, and maintain telework arrangements where they make sense, as a recruitment and retention tool for the federal workforce.

The announcement from OMB came just days after President Joe Biden signed a Republican-backed congressional resolution to end the COVID-19 national emergency Tuesday, several weeks ahead of its scheduled expiration date.

The memo also comes one year after agencies started executing office re-entry plans last spring.

“It is the right time for agencies to assess their work environments, reflecting on what they have learned as they build routines for measuring and monitoring organizational health and organizational performance,” OMB Director Shalanda Young said in the memo.

New deadlines for agencies

Under the new OMB guidance, agencies have a 30-day deadline to update their “work environment plans” for agency headquarters. These plans should generally guide individual agency telework and in-office work policies.

Along with updating work environment plans, agencies should define, within the next month, an agency lead for the plan, the way they will implement the changes, and how to effectively measure and monitor.

“Where agencies are successful, we will scale and replicate best practices. Where agencies fall short, including if their workplace policies negatively impact results, they must be held accountable and work to make responsible changes, improve their operations and tackle challenges wherever they arise,” Jason Miller, OMB’s deputy director for management, said in a blog post Thursday.

To determine how much agencies should stray from their current office and telework arrangements, it depends on the individual situation.

“Planning should recognize that some operating units have improved performance while using workplace flexibilities, while also optimizing in-person work and strong, sustainable organization health and culture,” OMB said.

Agencies can determine the effectiveness of their current work arrangements through different performance measurements, OMB said. For example, agencies can look at things like time-to-hire, attrition rates, rate of service delivery and overall workplace culture and environment. Some areas of the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS), such as employee engagement scores, can offer insight as well.

Agencies’ work environment plans should also focus on improving experiences and services that directly impact the public, OMB said.

“Today, the public is often dissatisfied with government services when compared against the private sector,” OMB said. “Agencies must ensure that all services, including public facing services, continue to meet and exceed customer expectations and needs.”

Federal telework policy is up to each agency and based on individual situations. Agencies have the discretion to allow telework depending on their mission and business needs.

Guidance raises questions around return-to-office

The new guidance from the White House gained some early pushback. Federal unions and agency chief human capital officers were reportedly left out of the process of putting together the OMB memo.

“It is disappointing that this guidance seems to assume that agencies will determine they should increase in-person work before agencies have reported on the effectiveness of their current operational policies,” National Treasury Employees Union National President Tony Reardon said in a statement. “In NTEU’s opinion, the federal government should first assess productivity and then adjust as needed. We are concerned that this assumption undermines the pro-telework stance that has been a hallmark of this administration from day one. For more than two years, administration officials have touted the benefits and successes of telework as an essential benefit that helps employees with work-life balance, maintains productivity and helps agencies recruit and retain the skilled workers they need to accomplish their missions. We have seen no evidence to justify any change from that position.”

The administration’s new guidance on agency work environments does not override collective bargaining agreements in effect at agencies with frontline employees, meaning access to telework for those employees will remain largely unchanged, Reardon added.

Telework for the federal government has remained a point of uncertainty and contention for Congress, unions and agency employees themselves for several years.

House Republicans have called repeatedly on the government to return federal employees to the office. They have said the spike in telework over the last three years has led to unprecedented backlogs and delays at agencies including the Social Security Administration, Department of Veterans Affairs and IRS.

The SHOW UP Act, a bill the House passed in January mostly along party lines, aims to return all currently teleworking federal employees who were working in the office prior to the pandemic back to their former work locations.

House Oversight and Accountability Committee Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.), who led the efforts of the SHOW UP Act, said the memo did not make the return-to-office situation any clearer.

“OMB managed to issue a 19-page memo that shed virtually no light on when federal employees are returning to their offices – or under what conditions continued elevated levels of telework may be warranted,” Comer said in an email statement. “The House Oversight Committee will follow up with OMB about this lack of information and continue pressing the Biden administration to get federal employees back to their workplaces and provide better service for the American people.”

Telework “should not be one-size-fits-all”

Democrats have largely opposed the GOP stance on telework, and have said the backlogs at agencies come from understaffing and underfunding. Many Democrats, including Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), have emphasized the long-term importance of telework to improve federal recruitment and retention.

“The pandemic taught us that telework is a valuable and necessary tool for continuity of operations. But it is not and should not be one-size-fits-all,” Connolly said in an email statement. “The administration’s balanced guidance recognizes that fact, and puts us on a path toward structured telework programs that are tailored to the specific needs of individual agency missions — as they should be.”

The American Federation of Government Employees said that with the new OMB guidance, federal employees’ support of telework should remain front of mind. A recent survey conducted by AFGE found that the vast majority of feds report improved productivity while teleworking.

“OMB’s recognition that telework’s merits must be appreciated apart from concerns about COVID is appropriate. This shift in perspective will be helpful as agencies and their employees evaluate the work arrangements that will be most effective in achieving their missions,” AFGE National President Everett Kelley said in an email statement.

OMB previously asked agencies to start thinking more concretely about how much and what types of property are necessary to fully implement their vision for the future of work in the federal sector. Agencies were given a deadline of December 2022 to create their capital plans for 2024 through 2028.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has also called on the White House to either return the federal workforce to the office, or give up the government’s “vast property holdings” in the nation’s capital.

But many agencies have been reluctant to give up their physical office spaces, with continued uncertainty over return-to-office plans.

How many feds are currently teleworking?

2022 FEVS data showed that about 31% of federal employee respondents were working fully in person. About 55% said they were on hybrid work schedules. Another 14% said they were working fully remotely.

Over the past few years, the Biden administration has favored agencies’ use of telework, when possible, as a way to try to better recruit and retain federal employees. In 2021, the Office of Personnel Management released a telework and remote work guide that asked agencies to reevaluate their telework policies and update them to reflect lessons learned from the pandemic.

OPM Director Kiran Ahuja has also emphasized the importance of making telework available to eligible federal employees and warned that feds are “agency-hopping” to more telework-friendly offices.

More recently, OPM issued guidance on the future of work for federal agencies, which largely emphasized hybrid work.

The OMB memo is likely one of many pieces of upcoming guidance from the Biden administration as pandemic restrictions continue to ease. The White House plans to soon disband its COVID-19 task force, once the public health emergency ends in May, the Washington Post reported last month.

 

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