Lawmakers on the House Oversight and Accountability Committee are taking an even deeper dive into agencies’ telework policies.
Four agencies — the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and NASA — detailed their data and measurements for federal telework to members of the Oversight committee’s subcommittee on Government Operations and the Federal Workforce.
The Sept. 14 hearing comes after months of pressure from Republican committee members who have repeatedly called on agencies to share more granular data on telework and productivity of federal employees.
The group of agencies at the hearing served as positive examples of delivering “good faith” data on their plans and measurements of telework’s effectiveness, said Subcommittee Chairman Pete Sessions (R-Texas). He added that the committee is still looking to root out gaps in all agencies’ data, which can measure agency performance while employees are teleworking.
“I believe that telework can be helpful to agencies to help them carry out their mission,” Sessions said during the hearing. “But it does not mean every single agency would necessarily have that same success.”
In response to the committee’s requests, the four agencies shared their workforce productivity measurements and laid out the role that telework plays. DHS, for example, has many front-facing positions that are ineligible for telework. But for those that do work from home, there are metrics in place to determine continued productivity.
“A lot is involved in the position description itself. And then beyond that is whether that position is actually telework-eligible based on the type of work that they’re going to do,” Randolph Alles, DHS’ deputy undersecretary for management, said during the hearing. “But I think an important part here is whether they telework or don’t telework, I want to know that they are working. We apply metrics across our different lines of business to measure the performance of our employees. And clearly, if they are not performing, then we’re going to hold them accountable.”
About 73% of DHS’ nationwide workforce reports in person every day, according to payroll data from July 2023. That’s an increase from about 64% reporting to the office every day at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many agencies began with a small increase of in-person work in late 2021 and throughout spring 2022. In April this year, the Office of Management and Budget called on agencies to scale up in-office work even more. And in August, White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients took the Biden administration’s position a step further, telling agencies to start to “aggressively execute” return-to-office plans.
But all four agencies at the committee hearing said telework remains an important tool for recruitment and retention. Telework will not go away, and the agencies said they continuously measure performance and plan to make adjustments going forward.
At NRC, for example, Executive Director for Operation Dan Dorman said although the agency first started ramping up in-person work back in November 2021, the agency has recently looked at how to make in-person work more valuable for employees.
“We really focused on, ‘what are we learning in our hybrid work environment? And how can we better optimize how we’re working to take advantage when we come together?’” Dorman told Federal News Network after the hearing. “We’ve got guidance laid out of different examples of that — of when we work better together, so that managers can work with their staff to identify those times when we’re going to come together. We have telework plans that are approved by the supervisors and have a certain amount of agreed upon level of telework. But what we’re actually going to be doing is working out, ‘How do we plan to come together to optimize what we’re doing?’”
At NSF, more than 1,300 of the 1,600-member workforce are in telework-eligible positions. And more than 1,000 NSF employees are using that flexibility, said Chief Operating Officer Karen Marrongelle. She added that there are set expectations for employees who telework.
“Prior to partaking in any telework, our employees have to undergo training. Telework is considered a privilege, not a right,” Marrongelle said during the hearing. “We are able to track that … We have metrics on [productivity] and if there are problems with time and attendance, we are able to take disciplinary action.”
Like many agencies, NSF recently announced plans to increase in-office work. Employees will be expected to report to the office four days per two-week pay period beginning in late October. Marrongelle said that the agency will also continue to measure productivity and make adjustments as needed.
“There is no exact science that points to a correct number [of days in the office],” Marrongelle said. “But we feel like it needs to be more than what we have now.”
Similarly, at NASA, Mission Support Directorate Associate Administrator Robert Gibbs said the agency’s work environment plans are not written in stone.
“We recognize we will need to make periodic adjustments as we work within this new hybrid environment,” Gibbs said during the hearing. “NASA senior leaders remain committed to developing new ways to measure and evaluate agency performance in concert with a new hybrid environment.”
But the push toward more in-office work, which focuses largely on those “meaningful” interactions and moments of collaboration, did not satisfy some committee members who took a more hardline approach to the role of telework for the federal workforce.
“It’s not working,” Rep. Clay Higgins (R-La.) said during the hearing. “We need our executive branch to perform in person, in your office — end of story.”
“For me, the biggest question is productivity and constituent satisfaction in their interactions with the federal agency,” Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) said. “Those are the two areas that really drive my thoughts on this matter.”
House Republicans have spent much of the year targeting federal telework policies following the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. In January, the House passed the SHOW UP Act, a bill first introduced by Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.). If enacted, the bill would return federal workers to their pre-pandemic workplace arrangements from 2019 and scale up in-person work. Senate Republicans introduced a companion bill in May, but there is so far no action on it.
Republican lawmakers have also repeatedly said telework has worsened productivity and federal services to the public, for example at the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Social Security Administration and the State Department.
But advocates of federal telework have said it accomplishes the reverse — it increases productivity and supports recruitment and retention. Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said there’s also an important distinction “between universal remote working in a pandemic, and a structured telework program.”
“We’ve got to separate the two,” Connolly said. “In a structured program, you’ve got to be qualified. It’s got to be reviewed. It’s got to be approved. Presumably, you’re also evaluated on productivity, on checking in, on being available. We monitor that to know you’re doing your job.”