Whether through a large public announcement or a slow quiet change, one by one, agencies are beginning to announce return-to-office plans for their teleworking employees.
Though unlikely to span the entire federal workforce, the trend from some agencies is heading toward more in-office, yet still hybrid, work for telework-eligible feds.
The Office of Management and Budget’s April 13 memo gave agencies an initial 30-day deadline to create a “work environment plan,” to outline changes to their telework policy, and detail plans to measure productivity going forward. OMB said agencies are expected to increase “meaningful” in-person work at federal offices, especially at headquarters offices, while at the same time, maintain telework arrangements where they make sense and as a tool to improve recruitment and retention.
Around the same time, the Office of Personnel Management, in an April 18 memo, announced plans to end the government’s “maximum telework flexibility” operating status in May. The status had been in place since March 2020.
The Biden administration’s call to agencies to start increasing in-office work has drawn confusion and criticism from federal unions, and many employees who have said they feel “unsure” about what the memo means for them.
Ultimately, OMB left the decision up to individual agencies — and there have been a wide range of responses. Many agencies are still figuring out their exact plans, while others have pushed forward with big changes coming as soon as this fall. The question remains, who’s going back to the office, and who’s not?
The Agency for International Development (USAID) is one of several agencies that have recently announced upcoming changes to their workplace plans.
Beginning in late July, USAID employees with telework agreements in Washington, D.C., will have to start coming into the office more often. The goal is to reach three days in the office per week by the end of September.
“This posture allows the agency to increase collaboration, spark innovation and continue delivering life-saving and transformative assistance around the world,” a spokesperson for USAID said in an email to Federal News Network.
The spokesperson added that the change is consistent with OMB’s directions to “substantially increase in-person presence” at agency headquarters.
Similarly, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) announced an upcoming increase to in-person work for the majority of its employees.
Starting Jan. 1, FDIC employees with telework agreements at headquarters, regional and area offices must work on-site three days per week — they’ll still be allowed to telework two days a week. The policy does not apply to field office examiners who already primarily work on-site at banks.
“We believe it is in the long-term interest of the FDIC to achieve better balance between in-office work and telework in order to carry out its critically important mission effectively,” an agency spokesperson told Federal News Network.
The National Treasury Employees Union, which represents FDIC frontline employees, said it “strongly opposed” the agency’s return-to-office plans, and that the planned change disregards previously negotiated telework agreements.
“The agency’s announcement is especially counterproductive because if implemented, it will weaken morale and, we fear, cause some of the agency’s valuable and highly trained employees to retire or seek alternative employment,” NTEU National President Tony Reardon said in an email.
NTEU plans to offer a counter proposal that “protects employees’ ability to telework when management has not identified a specific mission-related need for them to be in the office,” Reardon added.
Department of Veterans Affairs
In an all-staff email last month, Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough announced the department’s plans to require employees with telework agreements in the National Capital Region to work in the office at least five days per two-week pay period — in other words, half of their work hours.
“I understand this change will be difficult, as the change to telework was very difficult in 2020,” McDonough said in the May 24 email. “Working together we will again lead the federal workforce as we address this new challenge.”
“I think we will have some of our workforce who are disappointed,” McDonough later told reporters, adding that much of the VA workforce has been working in-person every day since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
McDonough said he is open to feedback from VA employees about the upcoming plans. The change will take effect later this fall, but the department has not yet announced a specific date for implementation.
Specifically, FEMA employees with telework agreements will transition from two in-office days per two-week pay period, up to four days. FEMA also plans to lift a temporary pause on remote work and will continue posting open remote positions.
The return-to-office plans will take effect four months after the agency completes negotiations with its union, the American Federation of Government Employees.
“There are no immediate changes to employee work schedules, telework agreements or current telework policies,” FEMA Press Secretary Jeremy Edwards said. “FEMA leadership will continue to be fully transparent with our workforce throughout the process.”
What’s coming next for agencies’ return-to-office?
While some agencies have announced plans, return-to-office changes for many others are still up in the air. For one, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is still in the process of considering performance and other ways to measure employees’ productivity. Currently, EEOC is operating on a schedule of at least two days per week in the office for telework-eligible employees.
“We are working on how we may align our policies, including telework, in support of organizational health and performance,” EEOC spokesperson Victor Chen told Federal News Network.
Last spring, EEOC came under repeated criticism from AFGE, which represents the commission’s field office employees, for its initial office re-entry plans. AFGE filed a complaint with the Federal Labor Relations Authority last summer over increasing days in the office for field office workers.
In a different direction, the Department of Health and Human Services earlier this month inked a new collective bargaining agreement with NTEU, which included a provision on telework, though the department has not announced any specific changes to workplace plans for employees.
The new labor-management contract solidifies up to eight days per two-week pay period of telework for eligible employees and adds occasional telework options for other employees in certain circumstances. Some employees will also be eligible for remote work schedules, which do not require an employee to report to the office in a given pay period.
But one component of HHS, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, has shared initial plans to increase in-office work in the coming months, by redesignating remote employees as teleworking employees, according to a report from Federal Times.
Agencies are also receiving pressure over their return-to-office plans from many Republicans in Congress. In addition to calling for more specific data and numbers of teleworking employees and sending multiple letters to agency leaders pushing for office re-entry, GOP lawmakers also introduced a bicameral bill, the SHOW UP Act, aiming to return all federal employees to pre-pandemic work locations. The SHOW UP Act cleared the House earlier this year, and although it was introduced in the Senate, it has not yet been considered.
Still, federal unions have repeatedly said they will rely on established collective bargaining agreements to push back against increasing in-office work.
“Telework was a fixture in the federal workplace for years before the pandemic, and that will not change,” NTEU’s Reardon said. “The federal government has decades of experience in allowing eligible employees to work from home for part of each pay period, giving them a work-life balance and helping agencies compete with the private sector for skilled workers.”