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The Pandemic Has Created an Opening to Improve Federal Labor-Management Relations

The broad success of telework offers an opportunity for unions and executives to come together to support a new work environment that benefits employees and management.

When data showed that federal employees maintained, and in some cases increased, productivity after the Office of Personnel Management urged agencies to impose mandatory telework wherever possible to combat the spread of COVID-19, the loudest critics of telework were silenced. In a recent report, the Defense Department’s inspector general found that almost 9 in 10 survey respondents said their productivity level remained the same or increased after maximum telework went into effect. 

Will the positive results be sustained with a new workforce model as federal employees are able to return to offices? Or will the data be ignored and agencies return to their previous practices?

The pandemic experience offers a unique opportunity for change because old assumptions about the effectiveness of telework were blown up by the data. It is an opportunity for new assumptions tied to increasing employee productivity with less stress and more satisfaction.

Labor-management relations may have much to say about the path forward. 

When President Biden signed Executive Order 14003, he made the “methods and means of performing work” a mandatory subject of bargaining. Federal employees, through their unions, will have a seat at the bargaining table when the post COVID implementation of telework is defined.

If, however, union and management leaders continue the adversarial collective bargaining relationships fostered over the last four years, the focus will be limited to union leaders seeking maximum work flexibility for employees, and management leaders seeking maximum discretion to determine who is allowed to telework and when.

Winners and losers will be determined by which position prevails. Most likely, the final outcome will please no one, other than arbitrators getting rich deciding multitudinous grievances.  

Another option is for unions and managers to collaborate to find solutions that support the interests of both employees and managers in the new reality. A new, more collaborative relationship could start with a joint effort to gather data from employees and managers, for example, about what behaviors of managers and employees were critical to the success; what additional equipment is needed; what job characteristics allow for 100% telework; and what are the real impacts of mixing work with other home responsibilities. How widespread was the prevalence of burnout?

Based on the data, negotiators might explore, for example, an expanded agenda to determine:

  • What policies might be adopted to support the successful changed behavior? 
  • What child-care subsidies are needed to support teleworking parents? 
  • How can work processes be reorganized to eliminate burnout? 
  • Which core hours are critical and which are convenient? 
  • What actions and activities might address loneliness for remote workers? 
  • How can leaders foster professional development and career networking in a virtual environment?

A change from adversarial to collaborative relationship to resolve mutual problems requires a change of mindset. Both management and union leaders need to move beyond mutual suspicion and create an atmosphere of mutual trustworthiness—a change that must be earned. Perhaps specifically carving out the telework negotiations as a collaboration experiment with the right to return to regular bargaining, might provide the protection needed by both parties to try a different approach.

When the path forward is unclear, the parties have a real opportunity to creatively improve the work environment to the advantage of employees, managers, and the taxpayer.

Robert M. Tobias is distinguished practitioner in residence at the Key Executive Leadership Program at American University, and the former president of the National Treasury Employees Union.

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