How to Make Federal Telework Work Beyond the Pandemic

The administration needs a strategy that empowers employees and helps agencies deliver on their missions.

We’re approaching an anniversary nobody wants to celebrate—a year of COVID-related lockdowns and forced remote work for millions of employees. While bumpy in the early weeks, the majority of organizations have survived—some have thrived—during total telework. 

Studies show productivity is up and communication has improved. Many employees have grown accustomed to working from home and aren’t likely to go back into the office full-time even after vaccines are widely administered. These findings are especially true for the civilian federal employees and contractors that make up the vast majority of the government workforce. 

Starting now, the Biden administration and Congress must build a telework foundation in terms of policies and infrastructure to sustain a more remote Federal workforce long-term, after the pandemic subsides. A new framework is necessary to buttress new, flexible work choices. Government agencies should look to commercial technology capabilities and improved performance management frameworks that support their ability to deliver important mission outcomes in diverse, distributed ways. 

To “crush the coronavirus,” as President Biden has pledged, the administration should leverage the best digital capabilities, training and adaptive work schedules necessary for agencies to safely and effectively accomplish their missions. To date, private industry has stepped up in a meaningful way by partnering with government agencies to drive digital transformation, support employees in these new work environments, and thus deliver vital programs and services. Recent recommendations by the Alliance for Digital Innovation (ADI) include:

“Develop a robust telework strategy that enables agencies and their workforces to safely and securely perform their mission responsibilities. As such, it is imperative that both industry and government work collaboratively together to build a secure telework ecosystem that supports the technology and cybersecurity capabilities necessary for agencies to deliver vital programs and services, keep the workforce safe, and ensure agencies operate in state-of-the-art environments that rely on sophisticated digital workflows and commercial tools that support the mission. The plan should also enable agencies to manage their data assets and identity credentialing and access capabilities in modern, distributed operating models.”

Leadership from the General Services Administration and the Office of Personnel Management will be critical in implementing this strategy. While the administration has yet to nominate a GSA administrator, Congress should move quickly to confirm Biden’s pick to lead OPM, Kiran Ahuja. These two agencies have complementary responsibilities for strengthening today’s federal telework operations while executing a safe, thoughtful return-to-office strategy when the time is right for those who want or need to be in the workplace at least some of the time. 

OPM should review current authorities available under the 2010 Telework Enhancement Act and other relevant statutes to help agencies effectively maximize telework now and in the future. The administration should also seek to quickly update guidance, training, performance metrics, and accountability for teleworking federal employees.

In tandem, GSA should partner with its customers to determine their workplace requirements and execute a return-to-office plan tailored to individual agency needs while following advice from health professionals. As agencies look to reopen federal facilities, GSA must take the lead to provide the collaboration tools, video conferencing capabilities, network capacity and other technologies necessary to support their current telework posture. Any return-to-office plan should consider the number of employees who may choose to telework full or part time after the pandemic has subsided.

Finally, Congress should develop and approve additional comprehensive telework legislation that builds on the strong work of the previous Congress. While legislation in the House last year sought to enhance data collection and accountability around agency telework decisions, a Senate bill focused instead on supporting agency access to the best technology and training to enable safe and secure telework during the pandemic. Bipartisan, bicameral legislation could emerge in the current Congress that takes the best elements of both bills to make telework a preferred option for agencies to meet the constantly evolving needs of their workforce.

There are numerous options to support and expand telework across government. As the immediate COVID-19 recovery and relief efforts continue, the administration and Congress should begin working immediately with industry to ensure that all federal workers have the skills, technology, and support they need to deliver for the American people in these constantly changing times.

Matthew T. Cornelius is the Executive Director of the Alliance for Digital Innovation (ADI). ADI is the leading coalition of innovative technology companies focused on improving mission outcomes in the public sector through the adoption and use of modern commercial capabilities.