AFGE highlights new survey results, asks NSF to reconsider return-to-office plans

NSF said it “deeply values” employee feedback, but the agency has no intentions of altering its return-to-office plans, and instead plans to work with AFGE ...

After the National Science Foundation, like many federal agencies, announced return-to-office plans for its employees, the American Federation of Government Employees is calling on the agency to take a step back.

In a new union-conducted survey, AFGE Local 3403, representing roughly 1,000 NSF bargaining unit employees, found that a majority of agency workers are concerned about going back to the office more often — and some will consider leaving the agency if the plans are implemented.

“I started this job when NSF was posturing a hybrid and remote workforce, which indicated to me that NSF would have remote work available,” one employee wrote in AFGE’s survey results, obtained by Federal News Network. “Because they are essentially not allowing anyone to be remote, I will be finding a new job by October.”

AFGE received a nearly 50% response rate for the survey, and subsequently emailed the survey results to NSF leadership earlier this week. Jesús Soriano, president of AFGE Local 3403, said the union is asking NSF leadership to reflect on the impact of return-to-office changes, particularly on productivity and mission.

“We hope that they will learn from this, and in negotiations, they focus less on absolute management rights and more on compassion,” Soriano said in an interview. “It’s our hope that once management learns the reality of where NSF employees are, their posture will be more realistic.”

After receiving the union’s survey results, an NSF spokesperson told Federal News Network that the agency “deeply values” employee feedback, and previously collected data in collaboration with AFGE, both throughout the pandemic and during the transition back to the office.

“Employee input helped shape the proposals on additional flexibilities that management proposed to AFGE Local 3403 in June, and management looks forward to finalizing those policies as soon as possible so staff can coordinate with their supervisors and plan their work schedules,” the spokesperson told Federal News Network.

Still, NSF said it has no intentions of altering its return-to-office plans, and will move forward with the announced changes this fall, similar to other agencies under directions from the White House. Starting Oct. 23, all telework-eligible NSF employees and Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA) employees stationed at agency headquarters will have to work in the office at least four days per two-week pay period. The changes do not apply to employees eligible for remote work or those with an approved remote work agreement.

More time in the office ‘unworkable’ for one-quarter of NSF employees

A majority of respondents said the current requirements of working in the office two days per pay period has a small impact, and many can easily adjust.

But after the agency’s July announcement, and reentry plans now coming this fall, 42% of respondents said a requirement to work in the office four days per pay period would largely impact them, and they would have trouble adjusting.

Another 27% said that level of in-office expectations would be “unworkable,” and they would look to either find a new job or retire.

“Occasional time in the office is a good idea, but the key is flexibility,” one respondent said. “I could retire, and frankly, NSF needs me more than I need NSF. I love my job funding scientific advances. The Office of the Director should not discourage me from working by erecting unnecessary barriers.”

Nearly half of respondents said financial reasons, like cost of living, are a key reason they use and desire more workplace flexibility. The survey also received many “positive stories” of flexibility benefiting work-life balance, AFGE said.

Results of American Federation of Government Employees survey of bargaining unit employees at National Science Foundation.

Without that work flexibility, NSF could also struggle to recruit a more diverse workforce as time goes on, some respondents said.

“NSF is not making a work environment that is attractive to diverse groups or to up-and-coming talent, which ultimately hurts the agency,” one respondent wrote. “The diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility impacts will be huge.”

In another question, 47% of respondents said expanding access to remote work to everyone with an eligible position would improve their lives significantly. And 83% disagreed that the agency’s plan to change its current telework agreement aligns with better achievement of NSF’s overall mission.

Results of American Federation of Government Employees survey of bargaining unit employees at National Science Foundation.

AFGE’s decision to conduct a survey came after NSF leaders made a return-to-office announcement to staff members in July, prior to negotiating or reaching an agreement on telework with AFGE for bargaining unit employees, the federal union said.

NSF, like many executive branch agencies, is returning to the office more often, after the Office of Management and Budget told agencies in an April memo to rethink their workplace plans. In July, White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients sent an email to agency heads telling them to start to “aggressively execute” return-to-office plans by September and October this year.

NSF leaders said they chose to increase time spent in person “to ensure we meet NSF business needs while maintaining the flexibility for staff to balance their personal and professional lives.”

“Throughout the transition to a permanent hybrid environment, NSF will continue to collaborate with AFGE Local 3403 to ensure staff have the flexibility to balance their personal and professional lives while enabling the agency to effectively meet its mission,” the agency spokesperson said.

When it comes to workplace decisions, Soriano said he hears from employees that there can often be a disconnect between first-line supervisors and upper-level management.

“In many instances, the employees report good understanding and support from the immediate supervisors, but those employees report that the supervisors’ hands are tied by policies that come from the senior leadership,” Soriano said.

Still, not all in-office work is negative for NSF employees — and a handful of survey respondents said they prefer working in the office. The overall takeaway is that any required in-office work should focus on being meaningful, Soriano said.

“If we’re talking about collaboration or training workshops, we would welcome it,” Soriano said. “What we cannot welcome is obliging folks to commute to a building to do exactly the same work they’re doing in their alternate workspaces.”

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