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OPM Encourages Agencies to Expand Telework, Remote Work Permanently in New Guidance

The Office of Personnel Management on Friday issued its first major update to its telework guide in a decade.

The Office of Personnel Management on Friday encouraged agencies to ensure that telework is a major part of their workforce policies on a permanent basis, even following the COVID-19 pandemic that has forced many federal workers to work from home for nearly two years.

OPM Director Kiran Ahuja announced the publication of long-awaited guidance on telework and remote work in a memo to agency heads. The 79-page guidance marks the first major update to the federal government’s telework policy in a decade.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, federal employees demonstrated their resiliency, whether continuing to report to their workplace to carry out their mission or adapting with no notice to a maximum telework environment,” Ahuja wrote. “Employees were able to continue to meet the challenges of their jobs head-on from locations other than their regular duty station, apart from their managers, supervisors, and colleagues. Agencies demonstrated that they have been able to continue to carry out their missions effectively. As a result, agencies now have an opportunity to revisit how they were operating prior to the pandemic and leverage lessons learned to integrate telework and remote work into their strategic workforce plans.”

The new guide encourages agencies to ensure that telework and other workplace flexibilities are a fundamental part of their workforce policies, and to try to offer at least some level of telework to as many work units as possible.

“While employees and agencies alike enjoy positive outcomes resulting from telework, agencies retain both the discretion and obligation to determine employee eligibility for telework subject to business-related, operational needs and the limitations described in the [Telework Enhancement] Act,” OPM wrote. “[Agencies] should strive to fully integrate telework into their culture, providing all employees (other than those legally prohibited from doing so) the opportunity to telework at least occasionally.”

The document urges agencies to codify remote work, a term that refers to when an employee teleworks full time with no expectation that they commute to a traditional work site at least twice per pay period, as an “alternative work arrangement,” although OPM stressed its use should be considered on a case-by-case basis. OPM officials have said that remote work can be a valuable tool to attract and retain job candidates with unique mission-critical skills, as well as to promote a more diverse workforce, in terms of race and gender as well as geography.

“Not every position or every employee will be suited for remote work,” the agency wrote. “Agencies may want to consider multiple factors, including individual work style preferences, team dynamics and job characteristics when making decisions about candidates for remote work. Employees are also advised to conduct an honest self-evaluation when determining if they are suited for working in an environment where there is reduced interaction with managers or members of the team.”

Many of the updates to the government’s telework guidance are rooted in the idea that agencies should examine what elements of telework over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic improved productivity and employee engagement. For instance, OPM urged agencies that bar employees from teleworking if an employee’s child or dependent is at home to consider loosening those restrictions.

“We encourage such agencies to reconsider such policies in the light of the experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic, during which employees across the federal government have successfully teleworked in a variety of challenging contexts, including as it relates to dependent care,” the document states. “[Agencies] may wish to explore maxi flex schedules for teleworkers, especially those with care-giving responsibilities. Under a maxi flex schedule, employees are able to balance care-giving responsibilities throughout an entire day.”

The guidance also spells out how agencies should handle locality pay issues that might arise from employees teleworking and working remotely. In short, teleworking employees who still are expected to commute at least twice a pay period should be granted locality pay based on where their traditional worksite is located. But remote workers who do not travel to a federal facility regularly should have locality pay calculated based on where their home or alternative work site is.

Agencies’ experience shifting employees to full-time telework during the pandemic could be used to allow more employees to continue working in temporary emergencies where they otherwise might be forced to take a leave of absence or quit altogether, such as an injury, medical condition or severe weather.

“In such situations, an agency may continue to treat the agency worksite as the official worksite of the General Schedule employee even though, during that period, the employee is working from the alternative worksite and not returning to the agency worksite at least two days per pay period,” OPM wrote. “In that situation, the agency is unable to offer an agency worksite, but expects employees to return when the event has concluded.”

OPM also encouraged agencies to reevaluate positions that traditionally have been seen as ineligible for telework to see what elements of those jobs may still be done from home, and to make those employees eligible at least for periodic telework.

“Agencies could consider restructuring jobs not currently eligible for telework in a way that would allow incumbents (except those who are legally prohibited) to telework at least on a situational basis, and OPM encourages such innovation where it is possible,” the document states. “A workforce that is entirely telework-eligible would be best positioned to withstand emergencies and other disruptions to normal business operations, although OPM is aware that such arrangements may not be possible for some lines of work.”