More remote work can lead to cost savings and a broader applicant pool, officials say.
Federal agency leaders told lawmakers on Wednesday they have seen no dip in productivity as tens of thousands of workers have performed their duties remotely throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Consequently, they are looking to allow some employees to permanently work from home even after it is safe to return to offices.
Agencies have instituted new ways to both adapt jobs for remote work and to track performance for those not in the office, officials told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee panel on Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management, and they said all indications so far point to operations proceeding without issue. Senators praised the agency leaders for transitioning the work so quickly during the pandemic and encouraged them to find ways to instill lessons learned for the long term, as it would allow for a much larger hiring pool.
Keith Washington, the Transportation Department’s deputy assistant secretary for administration, said his team is already looking to do that. He explained the current maximum telework posture has taught managers they can effectively supervise and their employees can effectively execute the mission while working from home, noting "many offices even reported increased productivity."
“Some offices are reviewing plans to reduce their office footprint by eliminating leased space and maximizing remote work and telework once the COVID-19 public health emergency ends,” he said.
Sydney Rose, chief human capital officer at the Labor Department, said the pandemic has brought on a “eureka moment” for managers and supervisors, who are in the midst of a “paradigm shift.”
“Suddenly I have an applicant area that is the whole United States and not just the Washington, D.C. metro area,” Rose said, summarizing the thought process for managers throughout Labor. She added that at least one-third of the human resources staff will work remotely full time even after the pandemic due to where they are located.
Labor has made 99% of employees eligible to telework during the pandemic, and 96% are doing so. That is up from 68% just before the novel coronavirus outbreak.
Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., who chairs the subcommittee, asked what restrictions agencies might face in hiring someone from across the country who would rarely, if ever, meet their colleagues in person. Keith Washington responded it was simply a matter of changing attitudes.
“I’m hoping as a result of a lot of the lessons learned after our health emergency that managers will be more receptive,” he said. “I think it’s more of a culture change.”
Such a change may be underway at the Social Security Administration. Jim Borland, SSA’s assistant deputy commissioner, noted his agency had moved away from remote work prior to the pandemic. While SSA has begun to bring some workers back, he said 90% are now eligible for telework. He added the agency has learned significantly about the amount of work it can do remotely.
Officials noted new perks of the virtual workplace, such as a smoother onboarding process. They said senior officials can now participate in welcome sessions and new hires can easily be assigned “sponsors” to help the employees feel welcomed. Michelle Rosenberg, acting director for the Government Accountability Office’s strategic issues team, said expanded telework can lead to cost savings as agencies decrease their real estate costs and reduce cost-of-living adjustments for employees in areas outside of Washington. She added agencies had to update their telework agreements with employees, ensure trainings could take place remotely and implement new tracking systems for performance evaluation.
Rose suggested Labor was easily able to make those changes, catching even department employees by surprise.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t have managers tell me how amazed and delighted they are at how well 99% telework is working,” Rose said.
Lankford questioned whether supervisors could track their employees’ performances as effectively outside the office environment, but the officials again said they had experienced no issues. Rosenberg said managers must focus more on results than observation and any issue with employees not getting their work done traced back to trust, not telework.
“Someone you have a performance issue with, you are likely to have that issue with them whether they are teleworking or in the office,” she said.
Rose said top HR officials around government have been meeting regularly to discuss their teleworking shifts and will continue to share lessons learned. Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, called on Congress and agencies to document what is working so it can be utilized after the pandemic subsides.
“The pandemic has proven, once and for all, the value of a robust telework program in the federal government,” Reardon said. “Maximum telework policies have protected the health and safety of federal workers around the country, and their families, without sacrificing productivity.”
Lankford applauded the efforts underway across government and vowed to work with agencies to cement permanent change.
“We’re going to continue to be able to work on this because this is a paradigm shift for how we work as a federal government,” he said. “We’re opening up a much larger pool of individuals who are able to work with us.”