OMB’s return-to-office memo offers ‘reset’ for federal employees and their customers

Federal employees and agency leaders, in the absence of additional guidance or expectations, are still trying to understand what the Biden administration’s latest return-to-office memo means for them.

The Office of Management and Budget, in a memo last month, called on deputy secretaries to develop Work Environment Plans that take a closer look at agency satisfaction scores for both employees and customers.

The 19-page memo outlines, in more detail than any other federal workforce policy since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the interplay between federal employee satisfaction, customer experience and the level of in-office work occurring within federal buildings.

“When risks or indications of underperformance are identified, timely actions … must be taken to ensure organizations are meeting their performance objectives and customer expectations,” OMB Director Shalanda Young wrote in the memo.

The memo’s goal of optimizing all three of these metrics, however, leaves many federal employees and executives with more questions than answers.

Labor Department Chief Information Security Officer Paul Blahusch said Tuesday that the memo is creating some concern among the federal workforce.

“Some of this talk right now about [how] there’s going to be a return to work, I think that causes some concern with employees, and I hope that gets ironed out quick, as to what that means,” Blahusch said at ATARC’s GITEC Summit in Annapolis, Maryland.

The Labor Department, like many agencies since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, is offering remote work to prospective hires in an effort to recruit nationwide.

“It really helped us with our recruitment and retention. We didn’t have to say, ‘Well, you have to work within 50 miles of Washington, D.C. to work for the Department of Labor.’ Now we’ve got people in Colorado, we’ve got people in Kansas that work for the OCIO,” Blahusch said.

Blahusch said he sees the value of bringing federal employees together in the same workspace, “if there’s a meaningful reason to do that.”

However, he added that some staff members, including a vulnerability assessor within his office living in Puerto Rico, aren’t going to be a regular presence in the office, but should still feel part of the team.

“They’re not going to drop into the office for an after-work party,” Blahusch said. “That being said, we need to find ways, though, in this new environment to make them feel like part of the team, when they can’t be there in person.”

The OMB memo tells agencies that workplace flexibility policies remain “an important tool in talent recruitment and retention.” But it also calls on agencies to “substantially increase meaningful in-person work at federal offices,” particularly at the headquarters levels.

Many of the 4,700 federal employees who responded to a recent Federal News Network survey said it remains unclear whether the OMB memo will bring them into the office more days a week.

About two-thirds of respondents said they’d look for a new job if their agency decided to increase in-office work.

The Biden administration is asking agencies to investigate the linkage between customer service and in-person work, but some agency leaders are defending the productivity of the hybrid federal workforce.

IRS Commissioner Danny Werfel told members of the House Ways and Means Committee last week that the agency’s hybrid workforce is meeting performance targets, and that he isn’t pushing for more in-office work, as long as employees remain productive.

“It is a mix, like all other federal agencies. I would emphasize that everyone’s working. I will say that in my first few weeks at the IRS, the question that I focused on with the IRS right now is are we getting the job done? Are we answering the phones? Are we fighting off cyberattacks? Are we processing the backlog? As long as the answer to that question is yes, then that’s going to be my priority,” Werfel said. “Now if the answer is no, then I want to go deeper into the issue and figure out what the issue is, and if the issue happens to be the telework policy is negatively impacting our ability to get the job done for the American people, then we will make a change.”

The IRS, meanwhile, is looking to hire 20,000 employees by the end of fiscal 2024, and is looking to compete with employers that can offer higher pay or more flexibility.

Meanwhile, the Department of Veterans Affairs is figuring out what the OMB memo means for its benefits workforce.

Under Secretary for Benefits Joshua Jacobs told reporters last week that Veterans Benefits Administration employees are generally complying with the Office of Personnel Management’s requirement of being in the office at least two days a pay period.

“What we’ve demonstrated as an organization over the last two years is we’ve been able to increase production and increase productivity, notwithstanding the challenges associated with the very quick pivot to this largely virtual operation. And so I’m confident that the team will continue to produce, no matter what happens in the future,” Jacobs said.

VBA is looking to once again process a record-breaking volume of claims this year, and is looking at aggressive hiring and automation tools to help optimize the performance of VBA employees.

VA Secretary Denis McDonough said he is working with supervisors in the National Capital Region to make sure the VA is meeting the goals of a recent Office of Management and Budget memo calling for more in-person work.

“Our personnel [at] VHA, VBA, NCA are so productive, we are going to make sure that they can continue to operate the way they’re operating now,” McDonough said.

Martha Dorris, a former General Services Administration executive who led customer experience programs, now founder and CEO of Dorris Consulting International, said the OMB memo gives agencies an opportunity to set long-term expectations for the federal workforce.

Dorris said that level-setting is important for agencies that have spent the past few years working under ad-hoc, pandemic-era workplace policies.

“There needs to be a reset of performance and service delivery, without having COVID and the pandemic as a crutch,” Dorris said. “We were thrilled that people could continue with the mission and issue checks. But how fast are they getting them? Are they answering the phones? All those things we cut a lot of slack because it was a tough time.”

Lee Becker, a former chief of staff for VA’s Veteran Experience Office, now vice president and executive advisor for public sector and health care at Medallia, said the OMB memo forces agencies to understand they can’t improve customer experience without first ensuring employees are having their needs met.

“I think this memo is calling out to agencies that, as they’re evolving their understanding of how to address their mission sets, they should be considering the customer experience and employee experience aspects,” Becker said. “That will help them drive what are the people, the process and the technology capabilities that they will need to actually accomplish it.”

Becker said the OMB memo also promotes the Biden administration’s goals of using data and evidence to shape policy decisions.

“I think every agency is literally put on notice, in a good way, to say that you can’t just look at the data that you think matters. You have to look at the data that matters to the people you’re serving,” Becker said. “If you have an agency leader that does just look at what the levels of employees are coming into the office, it’s missing the aspects around what is the employee experience.”

Becker, however, said he’s wary that some agency supervisors may choose only to focus on certain elements of the memo, such as bringing more employees back to the office.

“I could see people falling into that trap of, ‘We only have 20% of our workforce in the office.’ That is a very myopic view of it. We have to look at it holistically,” Becker said.

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