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Nine Federal Agencies Had Almost All of Their Employees Teleworking During COVID-19

A new watchdog report looks at how 24 federal agencies balanced in-person and offsite work during the pandemic.

A new government watchdog report sheds light on how agencies used telework to keep federal workers on the job in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Government Accountability Office this week issued its report on the use of telework during the pandemic. Building on the work of the Office of Personnel Management, which recently found that 45% of all federal workers teleworked in fiscal 2020 and telework eligibility skyrocketed, the watchdog agency polled more than 20 agencies about their telework practices both before and in the pandemic’s early months.

Unlike OPM’s governmentwide reporting on the use of telework, GAO’s report highlights how the use of telework varied based on agencies’ missions and the portability of their work. Although all 24 of the agencies GAO surveyed reported an increase in the use of telework, nine of those organizations said at least 90% of their employees teleworked during the pandemic.

The fact that telework increased across all of the surveyed agencies reflects efforts by management to expand eligibility for the workforce flexibility, particularly by adjusting job duties to make employees’ work more portable.

“Officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs told us they temporarily granted full-time telework to employees under the agency’s maximum telework posture,” GAO wrote. “They also offered telework options to a significant number of employees previously ineligible to telework by expanding the use of telehealth services to veterans. They said that, in accordance with CDC guidance and local conditions, they varied the effective dates of maximum allowable telework at each VA location.”

The report suggests that employees at agencies that already had expansive telework policies may not have been utilizing them to the fullest extent prior to the pandemic. Although the National Science Foundation’s telework policy before COVID-19 allowed employees to work entirely from home—up to 80 hours per biweekly pay period, dependent on management approval—GAO reported that only 25%-50% of its employees teleworked before the pandemic. By July of 2020, 75%-90% of NSF employees teleworked.

“Employees [at NSF] could charge up to 80 hours of telework per biweekly pay period depending on the level of approval obtained,” the report states. “Further, the majority of NSF’s workforce had telework agreements in place prior to the pandemic. Thus, its supervisors and employees were already accustomed to telework. Agency officials said this facilitated NSF’s transitioned to a maximum-telework posture.”

In addition to already reported challenges agencies faced in adopting the maximum telework posture, such as making non-portable work doable from home and improving agencies’ IT infrastructure, GAO said agencies have struggled to ensure that employees maintained a healthy work-life balance.

“[The Energy Department] reported work-life balance challenges faced by employees and brought about by flexible schedules instituted to facilitate maximum telework,” GAO wrote. “DOE officials noted that with work schedule flexibilities and the changes to work processes during the pandemic, the boundaries between work and home life became blurred, often resulting in employees working longer hours and extended work weeks. DOE suspended core work hours and encouraged supervisors to exercise maximum flexibility with regard to their employees’ work schedules. This allowed employees a greater work-life balance while teleworking.”