A D.C.-area lawmaker said Friday that he believes a combination of negative perceptions of federal employees and “attitudinal and cultural barriers” in the workforce could help account for recent cutbacks to some agencies’ telework programs, and he is working to combat that trend.
In recent months, the Agriculture Department significantly curbed its use of telework, reducing the number of days an employee with an agreement can work remotely from effectively full time to about one day a week. The Education Department unilaterally excised telework—and other worker perks and protections—from its agreement with a federal employee union.
Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., who crafted the 2010 Telework Enhancement Act along with Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., said the changes at Agriculture particularly rankled him, given that Secretary Sonny Perdue touted telework as governor of Georgia and the White House has lauded the department as an example of governmental innovation.
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“What struck me [at a recent bipartisan White House meeting] was that USDA kept coming up and kept coming up and how USDA and Sec. Perdue was the star of the show,” Connolly said. “He’s offered USDA up as the premier agency for this innovation agenda . . . and I said, ‘OK, but this is the same secretary who wacked the telework programs, which was regarded as one of the most successful telework programs in the federal government.’”
Connolly said he is working on a new bill to codify existing telework policies with Sarbanes and others, and he hopes to introduce it in the “next several weeks.”
In 2017, the Government Accountability Office found that despite agencywide efforts to design and implement telework programs, some managers do not trust employees to work remotely.
“Officials at three of our four case study agencies and two focus groups with teleworkers and supervisors reported that some managers do not support telework because they believe it contributes to poorer performance, as compared to the performance of in-office employees,” GAO wrote last November.
Employees told GAO that they encountered resistance in the form of managers “not allowing changes to agreed-upon telework schedules, not approving situational telework requests, not allowing employees to call into staff meetings,” and sometimes simply limiting the number of days people were allowed to work from home.
Connolly said recent actions to reduce the availability of telework could be the result of lingering suspicion among managers about the practice. He cited a Government Executive report in which a Forest Service employee said the rumor among Agriculture staff was that Perdue cut telework after he had trouble “getting a couple of teleworking executives into the office for meetings.”
“A lot of [Trump appointees] have not really ever managed a large enterprise before, and so they may come at it suspicious of [telework],” Connolly said. “What is this? How come they’re not here? So they could think it’s just an excuse to avoid work for two or three days a week. And if you come in with a bad attitude towards federal employees anyway, that they’re lazy and fat and don’t do anything, it’s easy to conclude that telework is an extension of all of that.”
Despite recent setbacks, Connolly said in the long term, use of telework will continue to grow and become more accepted.
“Millennials don’t have that attitude at all, and the ones ahead of them don’t either,” Connolly said. “If you grow up with technology from birth, you have a different attitude about this. So as we start to age out older managers, I think we will see a big change in the attitude and the culture. You don’t have to be younger to get it, but in order to finally eliminate all of that once and for all, that’s a generational change.”