A New Era of Telework Should be the Beginning of a More Flexible Federal Workforce.
In the federal government, fewer than half of employees are authorized to telework, despite a requirement for agencies to incorporate telework into their continuity of operations plans.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, many employers have had to revisit their teleworking policies. Americans today—especially younger workers—have become accustomed to flexible workplaces where remote work is viewed not as a low-priority perk, but as an imperative that improves productivity and supports a high-performing, resilient organization. They expect to work hard but also to have the option to vary their work schedules and locations to accommodate family and personal obligations. And they are used to having the necessary tools available to do their jobs from day one—not waiting weeks for a computer or to get needed software applications.
In the federal government, however, fewer than half of employees are authorized to telework, despite a longstanding requirement for agencies to incorporate telework into their continuity of operations (COOP) plans. The mechanisms the government has in place to facilitate telework are being tested and strained in the current coronavirus pandemic.
But the imperative to modernize the government’s telework policies and improve its IT infrastructure and capabilities should not be solely driven by the current crisis. Ready or not, generational change is coming to the federal government. More than a third of federal employees will be eligible to retire in the next five years. And with less than 6% of the federal workforce under age 30, we need to do much more to attract a new generation to the federal workforce. This is especially important for workers with critical skills who are in high demand and includes leveraging technology and allowing flexibility for workers across government.
The need for adaptability and agility extends beyond teleworking. The personnel systems that federal agencies use to hire and retain talent must be overhauled, for multiple reasons: a time-to-hire duration three times as long as that in the private sector; non-competitive salaries at all skill levels, from engineers working at NASA to housekeepers disinfecting hospital rooms at Veterans Health Administration; and arcane rules that prevent agencies from extending the term of a federal employee who is critically needed, such as a wildland firefighters during an extended fire season. America’s civil servants need a personnel system and culture that is equal to the dedication they demonstrate in working every day to contribute to missions that affect the health, safety, and wellbeing of all Americans.
Employee benefits also need to accommodate life situations and career paths. An encouraging development was last year’s action by Congress and President Trump to offer 12 weeks of paid parental leave for federal employees. But more needs to be done. Federal employees still have no employer-sponsored short-term disability coverage, a benefit that is widely offered by large employers. While retirement benefits are quite substantial for longtime federal employees, they are not competitive for workers who desire career flexibility and might work for 5 or 10 years in public service before moving to the private sector. And, to be truly competitive in a modern economy, the federal government should also be able to readily bring former high performing employees back into the fold.
The challenges the nation is experiencing now should be a wake-up call for policymakers and federal agency executives alike. Actions to modernize personnel systems and the workplace environment will help agencies maximize performance even amid the most challenging crises while also improving their ability to attract and retain the critical talent needed to achieve their missions. The National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service, on which I serve, recently published its final report, Inspired to Serve, which includes many recommendations that would help to modernize federal personnel systems and attract new generations to public service.
Americans have the drive to serve. At the Commission, we hope this new teleworking environment serves as an impetus for Congress and the President to take bold steps in creating a modern, more flexible federal workforce.
Shawn Skelly is a Commissioner on the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service. Ms. Skelly served in the Obama Administration as the Director of the Office of the Executive Secretariat at the Transportation Department, after serving as Special Assistant to the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics.