Federal telework didn’t really start on a sustained course until the 1990s.

Federal telework didn’t really start on a sustained course until the 1990s. Автор/Getty Images

Expanded telework, a benefit now under threat, effectively boosts pay for hundreds of thousands of feds

Working from home pinches far more than pennies.

Some workforce policy changes effectively double as significant boosts to pay and benefits, sometimes cutting your costs by more than an annual pay boost or a promotion. They’re the kinds of things you’ll miss if they go away. 

During the pandemic the federal government suddenly switched to maximum telework status, and hundreds of thousands of feds discovered for the first time that working from home or a remote location can act like a raise. Ramped up to cover far more employees and agencies, telework spared you not only the risk of illness, but a lot of wasted time and a long list of expenses you used to pour into the morning commute. 

In a nutshell, the percentage of all feds who telework drifted slowly up from 14% in 2012 to 22% in 2019. In 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic raging and the Office of Personnel Management’s call for agency flexibilities on remote work in place, according to an OPM report, 45% of feds were teleworking

But how many of those of you who suddenly teleworked ever took the trouble to tally your savings? The research and telework consultancy Global Workplace Analytics has done just that, in a very detailed way. Two years ago, during the worst of COVID-19, the group calculated the average telecommute could save an average employee a high of $6,000 a year. And recently, the group’s president, in an interview with Government Executive, reiterated that working from home still pinches far more than pennies. 

“The average American can save between $2,500 and $6,000 a year if they telework half of the time—the average for those who do so,” Kate Lister, who helms GWA, said. “That includes the net [savings] of increased energy costs at home. In all, the money saved is comprised of a combination of transportation costs, parking, food, and work clothes.” 

“In addition, half-time telecommuters save the equivalent of 10 work days a year in commute time,” she added. “Government employees give back about 40% of that time. In other words, they spend 40% of the time they would have otherwise spent commuting doing work.” 

GWA, in multiple analyses over the last few years, points out that the savings to employers is even more significant: an average of $11,000 per year for each half-time remote worker. 

A Government Accountability Office report documented that some agencies made small-scale use of remote work efficiencies as far back as the 1950s. Federal telework as we know it—in wider use and under formal statutes and policies—didn’t really start on a sustained course until the 1990s

Studies over the decades since show teleworking employees often report productivity and performance gains, while employers mark greater employee engagement, recruiting and retention—and that expanded remote work and hybrid work also correlates with improvements in “work culture,” as spotlighted in recent Gallup and O.C. Tanner studies showing double-digit jumps in engagement accompanying the shift.

Despite a mountain of research available from GWA, federal government and other reputable sources generally showing good results from increased telework, a bipartisan backlash and push for a return to physical agency workplace has gained momentum. 

How is the backlash taking shape? Republicans in Congress led the charge during the pandemic and have doubled down this year with the introduction of the proposed SHOWUP Act (H.R. 139). And starting in April of this year the Democratic administration began piling on with its own back-to-the-office initiative

Why are Republicans pushing for a drastic reduction in telework? SHOWUP backers highlight what they say is a need to restore adequate agency services. “As the public health emergency officially ends in the United States, so should the pandemic-era telework policies for federal bureaucrats,” Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., a sponsor of the Senate’s version of the bill, has said. The rationale given for the Democratic administration’s push to slash telework reads very similarly—it’s just leavened on the back end. “The guidance … directs agencies to refresh their work environment plans and policies—with the general expectation that agency headquarters will continue to substantially increase in-person presence in the office … “ And then, workplace flexibilities will continue to be an important tool for ensuring agencies are able to retain and compete for top talent in the marketplace.” 

Regardless of how the current remote work controversies sort themselves out, Lister has a prediction. “I predict about half of the federal workforce will be ‘Work From Home’—WFH—or nearer to home 5 years from now,” she told Government Executive. “The average frequency will be about half-time; a number that has held steady for the last decade.” 

Lister is also concerned about another major factor driving pro-“return to office” forces: Embarrassing publicity around just how much federal office space is unoccupied and unused, and a resulting unthinking reaction in some circles to just fill it up again. 

“Telework didn’t cause the federal office space bloat,” Lister told Government Executive. “It merely helped reveal it—a problem the government has had for at least five years.” 

“While [the growth of telework] will hurt a lot of businesses in the short run, small business has proven to be highly resilient,” she added. “Basing the decision about whether or not people can work from home around [making use of] excess federal real estate is ludicrous. With thinking like that leading us, we would all still be riding horses. The world moves on.”