Program to let employees work where and when they want takes shape

An Office of Personnel Management official offered new details on OPM's workplace flexibility pilot program during a forum on telework in Washington on Thursday.

"If we only treat [workplace flexibility] as a perk for women, or a perk for people with disabilities, or a perk for anyone, there's ample opportunity to stamp it out," said Justin Johnson, deputy chief of staff at OPM, in reference to a program OPM Director John Berry announced during a White House summit on the issue last week.

The pilot, based on a results-only work environment model designed by Jody Thompson and Cali Ressler, will give 400 employees freedom to decide where and when they work, as long as they meet high performance standards.

The test group will consist of employees at OPM headquarters in Washington and at a field office in Boyers, Pa. The Pennsylvania workers process retirement paperwork, a task that is easy to measure, Johnson said, while the headquarters employees will work in areas where productivity is more difficult to quantify, such as communications. That diversity of tasks will allow OPM to assess how the pilot works across occupations.

Only five employees still regularly come in to a Pittsburgh call center that, while 21 others telework full time under a program started earlier, according to Johnson. The people still in the office have agreed to work from home permanently so OPM can close the office, he said. This will save more than $200,000 annually on expenses such as rent and utilities, which OPM can invest in telework technology, according to Johnson.

OPM managers and union leaders will collaborate to determine which work rules are stumbling blocks to true workplace flexibility, he said. OPM is running the pilot program without seeking demonstration project authority to waive certain provisions of personnel law, he said, requiring the agency to have serious conversations about whether rules such as paying employees an extra 25 percent on Sunday, even if that's a day they would prefer to work, hinder progress toward a results-only environment.

"What were the protections we put into place over time to make sure people were working all hours or weren't working schedules that made sense for them?" Johnson said. "If you gave individual employees the choice to work in the style that is best for them, which of those protections would become barriers?"

Arleas Upton Kea, director of the division of administration at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, speaking on a panel with Johnson, said experience taught her some protections were necessary to prevent workers on flexible schedules from overextending themselves.

"We found that we needed to check in on that and make sure they were adhering to some regular hours so they wouldn't suffer burnout," she said.

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