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OPM Wants to See More Telework, Remote Work and ‘Maxiflex’ Schedules Post-COVID

Guidance published late last week promotes telework and other flexibilities as retention and recruitment tools.

The Office of Personnel Management’s recent guidance on post-pandemic telework and reentry policies, released late last week, encourages agencies to consider expanding the availability of workplace flexibilities permanently, and offers some tips for managers still adapting to a remote work environment.

The 38-page document comes after nearly 18 months where federal agencies have been in a maximum telework stance due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and as agencies are fine-tuning their policies for bringing employees back into federal offices. Biden administration officials have repeatedly said that following the COVID-19 pandemic, agencies would apply lessons learned to expand the use of workplace flexibilities like telework, following increased productivity and employee engagement across the federal government.

The guidance says that once the requirement that all federal workers with portable work telecommute is rescinded, agencies should re-establish their pre-pandemic telework policies with revisions based on what officials learned over the course of the pandemic. It also specifically calls on agencies to consider changes to their telework policies based on their potential impact on their “ability to compete for qualified candidates and retain talent.”

Federal employees and agency leaders have repeatedly said that despite early hiccups due to insufficient network capacity and laptop and software shortages, the shift to maximum telework has led to increased productivity on many tasks, as well as improved employee engagement. But Republicans have urged agencies, thus far in vain, to fully reopen federal offices as soon as possible, citing some difficulties that have cropped up over issues like the availability of veterans’ personnel records and the Social Security Administration’s need to review original copies of ID documentation.

In a shift away from previous OPM documents on telework, last week’s guidance specifically highlights remote work as a “main” category of telework. Unlike routine telework, where an employee has a regular schedule of days in the office and working from home, and situational telework, in which workers telework infrequently—often with management approval—remote work allows employees to work from home on a full-time basis.

“There are various reasons why an employer might decide to approve remote work, including: as a retention tool to maintain talent or institutional knowledge; to acquire the knowledge needed for difficult to hire mission-critical talent or hard to find skillsets; [and] to help the agency achieve cost savings with real estate reductions,” the guidance states.

Agencies may also institute remote work to help employees balance work and family responsibilities, to recruit new employees who expect more workplace flexibilities from their employer, and to recruit talent from regions where employees traditionally would need to relocate to serve in the federal government.

Although remote work should only be approved on a case-by-case basis, the guidance suggests that agencies should come up with standard policies for the approval of those agreements, to avoid any perception of “favoritism or unfair practices.” OPM wrote that it plans to issue a “remote work guide” to further explain how the practice can be implemented at agencies.

OPM also encouraged agencies to rethink longstanding rules across the federal government that barred federal employees from teleworking while also caring for a child at home “in light of its experience during the pandemic.” Previously, if employees were caring for a child, they would have to take leave for the hours they were engaged in care activities.

“In many instances, these policies assume a rigid adherence to specific work hours,” the guidance states. “Agencies may want to consider offering teleworking employees with dependent care responsibilities a maxiflex work schedule, which is a type of flexible work schedule that, when combined with telework, provides the most flexibility to employees who need to address the dual demands of work and caregiving, as well as other personal responsibilities.”

The guidance reiterates the eligibility requirements for a federal employee to telework or enter a remote work agreement, as well as the fact that managers can revoke those agreements if the employee’s performance suffers.

“When deciding to terminate a telework agreement, a manager should be able to document and demonstrate that the employee’s teleworking directly and negatively impacts the employee’s performance or the performance of the work group/organization,” OPM wrote.

In the case of poor performing remote workers whose homes are distant from their employer, OPM said there are other ways to more closely monitor them than to revoke their remote work arrangement, given the upheaval that would ensue to relocate the employee.

“If the employee resides outside the local commuting area of the agency worksite, there may not be a government site where the employee can report following an agency determination that the remote work arrangement is negatively impacting the employee’s performance,” the guidance states. “In such a case, an agency may determine that an employee is a better candidate for a [performance improvement plan] that can be done remotely at an alternative worksite versus requiring the struggling employee to work onsite via a management-directed reassignment.”