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Science Foundation Director Faces Employee Backlash Over Reentry Announcement

Union officials say the NSF director appears to be slow-walking implementation of a hybrid work environment, including remote work and telework, following the COVID-19 pandemic.

Employees at the National Science Foundation have grown frustrated at the pace of plans to implement a hybrid work environment after the agency’s director made only vague and “confusing” references to flexibilities like remote work and telework when announcing last week that employees would begin returning to the office next month.

Last year, NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan, a Trump appointee, commissioned a study of “the feasibility of a geographically dispersed workforce” for the agency, culminating in a Tiger team of management officials and a representative of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents NSF employees, issuing a report endorsing the creation of a hybrid work environment following the COVID-19 pandemic. Like other federal agencies, a significant portion of the NSF workforce has been in a maximum telework posture since March 2020 as a result of the pandemic.

That report found that shifting to a hybrid work environment, where employees could choose to work in traditional offices, telework regularly, or work entirely remotely, could expand diversity at the agency, improve its recruitment and retention of employees, and promote a “people-focused” culture. It proposed a series of changes to personnel policies to facilitate telework and remote work as permanent options for employees, and outlined a detailed implementation plan.

AFGE Local 3403 President David Verardo said the report represented an important example of collaborative labor-management relations on a topic that has until recently been something of a sore subject for managers and supervisors.

"I was the only non-manager there, but frankly it was a thoughtful and collegial group,” he said. “There were some early concerns that if we started to do more full-time telework or even remote work, with people not physically in the Alexandria, [Va.], building, what would that look like? We talked about what that would do for morale, teams and the NSF community. At the end of the day, it was a report heavily influenced by management, but we all agreed we would try things, and that the things that work out well we would keep and the things that we didn’t we would ditch. It was a really good report.”

But since the report was completed and delivered to Panchanathan, Verardo said the director has seemed more hesitant to move forward with the plan, despite early enthusiasm.

“We delivered the report in July, but then he sat on it,” Verardo said. “I kept asking, ‘Where are we with this?’ because telework helps us recruit and retain people dealing with everything from family responsibilities to disabilities. The director kept saying he was thinking about it and thinking about it. He had some town halls at NSF where he would explain to people he was all in on remote work and it would be part of our workforce future and all of this other stuff . . . but then he became more tepid in the last couple months, so I asked him, ‘What concerns you?’ And he said, ‘I want to make sure we’re doing our work.’”

Then, last week, Panchanathan announced in a message to employees, obtained by Government Executive, that the agency would begin its office reentry process next month, beginning with the agency’s executive leadership team. Employees will be given 30 days notice before their specific time to return to the office, although they will be able to request full-time telework from their manager in 90-day increments.

The most concrete mention of permanent telework or remote work arrangements came in the form of a pledge to work with AFGE beginning next year on assessments of agency positions to determine eligibility, a measure that the Tiger team report proposed to begin three months earlier, in October.

“We will be working with our union partners and starting in January, we will conduct an assessment to determine which positions may be eligible to telework full-time or work remotely,” Panchanathan wrote. “I am committed to keeping you informed and working together as a team to make this transition successful. I know many of you are excited to return to the building and interact with your colleagues.”

Verardo said employees—both union and management—were confused and frustrated by the director’s message because of multiple references to “welcoming all staff back to the building.”

“I said, ‘This will drive people crazy,’” he said. “[Assessing positions for remote work eligibility] is an idea that we had, but we’re already behind the curve here . . . I warned him that this was not going to go over well with the staff, and they’ll feel like they’ve been misled, and senior staff was sensitive to that, basically saying, ‘Yeah, we know.’”

In a statement to Government Executive, an NSF spokesperson objected to the idea that the director was slow-walking the development of a hybrid work environment at the agency, and cited the evolving nature of the pandemic in the agency’s delay in moving forward with plans for reentry and implementation of permanent telework and remote work policies.

“The report was delivered with the assumption that return to site would begin in October,” the spokesperson wrote. “As you know, the landscape of the virus and vaccines changed dramatically from when the report was completed and the situation remains dynamic. Work on the recommendations has continued throughout this entire timeframe.”

For Verardo, he said his frustration comes from what he sees as an unnecessary delay on what could be an easy victory for collaborative relations between labor and management that would improve employees and managers’ lives, as well as make the agency more effective.

“We’re on the cusp of real transformation here,” he said. “We talk about science all the time, but we have a chance to really do it with our workforce, but leadership can’t seem to get out of their own way and trust us on this. This isn’t labor vs. management, this is labor and management together against this idea of stalling.”