Federal Government to Preserve Flexible Work Post-Pandemic

Roy Maurer By Roy Maurer June 14, 2021
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​The White House announced June 10 that federal agencies will be authorized to offer their employees more flexible schedules and remote work as the COVID-19 pandemic winds down in the United States.

The Biden administration's return-to-work guidelines roll back in-person occupancy limits, request agencies' reopening plans, and explicitly support flexible and remote-work arrangements, including hybrid in-person/remote scheduling and opportunities for fully remote work.     

Much of the federal government has worked remotely since March 2020 as a reaction to the pandemic, but the announcement's nod toward permanent flexibility is a huge shift in workplace culture for the public sector, which has lagged behind many private employers in supporting flexible and remote work.

The guidance memo from the acting heads of the Office of Management and Budget, the Office of Personnel Management, and the General Services Administration recognized that over the past 15 months, federal employees successfully demonstrated resiliency in completing their duties, whether they were in person or working remotely. 

"Evaluation of an employee's performance should be based on factors such as accountability for results or quality of the work, and should not be affected by whether an employee is working in the office, teleworking, based remotely, or working a flexible work schedule," the memo reads.

The guidance states that many federal workers will return to onsite work this year, but also opens up the possibilities for increased use of hybrid scheduling, fully remote work and even arrangements where employees living in one part of the country could work for an agency located in another part, something that was rare for federal workers pre-pandemic. How much federal employees will be able to work away from the office will be up to individual agencies and contingent on employee needs, manager preferences and the department's mission, officials said.

"The plan to continue widespread remote work is a clear signal that remote work's positive impact will be with us long after the pandemic," said Brie Weiler Reynolds, career development manager and coach at FlexJobs, a Boulder, Colo.-based resources and jobs site for flexible and remote jobs. "This expansion of remote work as a long-term strategy for federal workers means we will likely see even more significant outcomes in terms of productivity, hiring and retention, cost savings, operational consistency, and emergency preparedness."

The federal government is often seen as a standard-setter, said Terry Gerton, president and CEO of the National Academy of Public Administration, a nonprofit organization chartered by Congress to assist government leaders in managing their organizations. She added that "the announcement is a clear signal to private sector firms that it is OK to return to offices and other workplaces if you follow CDC guidance and that it is OK to start planning for hybrid work arrangements."

The new policy is likely going to be very popular with many federal workers, who rated the flexible working arrangements of the last 15 months highly. Managers also concluded that productivity did not suffer while 59 percent of federal employees worked from home during that time.

"That made the administration feel more comfortable that telework was not a detriment to effectiveness and that it in fact generated an improvement in morale," Gerton said. "The federal government realizes that it is in a competition with the private sector for talent. And workplace flexibility is an important negotiating tool and an important consideration for employees when choosing among competing job offers. If the government is going to be competitive in the talent market, it is going to have to adopt flexible and remote work arrangements."

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'Growing Pains'

In adopting remote work, agencies will have to figure out the best way to track performance and ensure equity among employees working remotely, in person or a combination of the two. Some Republicans in Congress have already criticized the move, saying public services will suffer with fewer people in the office.

Gerton doesn't see any major downsides to expanding flexible work for federal workers but foresees likely "growing pains." Giving agencies the autonomy to make their own flexible work policies is "a radically different approach from how federal HR guidance has been issued in the past," she said. "The flexibility is wonderful, but it will take some adjustment from the agencies who were expecting much more definitive do's and don'ts."

She said it will also take some time to come up with effective hybrid work management practices.

The most common challenges remote workers face, according to 2,100 professionals surveyed by FlexJobs who worked remotely during the pandemic, are:  

  • Overworking or an inability to unplug (35 percent).
  • Dealing with nonwork distractions (28 percent).
  • Dealing with technology problems (28 percent).
  • Reliable WiFi (26 percent).

"Federal agencies should be prepared to support these challenges and train their managers to handle these types of issues," Weiler Reynolds said. "Of course, in the federal government, as with any other employer that deals with secure or sensitive information, privacy and security of information is vital. And managers need to work on creating successful hybrid teams that ensure inclusivity and equity when they have some folks in offices and others working from home."

Union Response

Before any changes to employees' remote work status and flexible schedules are finalized, agencies will have to come up with plans that satisfy collective bargaining obligations. About 30 percent of federal workers are represented by unions.

Everett Kelley, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest union representing federal employees, said that there is an openness to negotiating hybrid and remote arrangements.

"Throughout this devastating pandemic, many federal workers have been serving the American public admirably while working remotely, … [and] as we move forward, negotiations will address the procedures for implementing these new policies around return to worksites, and those negotiations will take into consideration the complex issues federal employees are facing, whether they've been teleworking or continuing to report to their regular worksites." 

Kelley said he was glad that the Biden administration was not rushing a return-to-work schedule "but rather allowing agencies time to work with us for a safe re-entry that incorporates the lessons learned about both the advantages and disadvantages of telework."

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