Telework Isn't to Blame for Government Backlogs and Inefficiencies, OPM Director Says
Kiran Ahuja defends telework before skeptical Republicans, amid efforts to improve data collection around agencies’ use of workplace flexibilities.
Office of Personnel Management Director Kiran Ahuja last week defended the Biden administration’s approach to workplace flexibilities like telework from sharp Republican questions, just as her agency rolls out new efforts to improve data collection related to the practice.
Although telework has existed in some form at federal agencies for years, its usage ballooned at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 in order to protect federal workers and preserve continuity of agency operations. Biden administration officials have since vowed to build on lessons learned during the pandemic and maintain higher usage of telework and remote work following the restoration of in-person work, noting that the flexibilities have corresponded with higher employee engagement and, at least preliminarily, reports of higher productivity.
“While COVID is no longer driving our workforce decisions, employers have updated tools and knowledge about managing employees in hybrid work environments and the benefits to their customers,” she said. “They have also seen the positive impact workplace flexibilities have on areas such as productivity, engagement and diversifying the talent pool. To that end, OPM is focusing on how we can better assist agencies to meet their workforce needs.”
But House Republicans, citing increased workload and frustration in their offices’ constituent casework teams, have assailed telework and remote work in recent months, attributing difficulties to sustained high levels of the workplace flexibilities. In February, the House passed the SHOW UP Act, which would require federal agencies to revert to their pre-pandemic telework policies within 60 days, a measure opposed by the Biden administration.
“While Capitol Hill and congressional office buildings have reopened to the public and employees are back into in-person work, the same cannot be said for a large portion of the federal government,” said Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., chairman of the House Oversight and Accountability Committee. “President Biden has at least stated [returning to agency offices] is a priority for the administration, but reports have shown only one-third of federal employees have returned to the workplace since the start of the pandemic.”
Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, said that Republicans are concerned that “the federal government is not at work,” and cited service backlogs at a number of agencies, including the State Department, Small Business Administration and the Internal Revenue Service.
“We believe the behavior that is taking place in agencies, embodied by employees, is one where they say, ‘We’re entitled to telework and we’re doing that,’ and we as Republicans understand that,” Sessions said. “However, when we look at the performance, it seems that more people are on telework than are actually allowed by the guidelines, and we do not believe that this administration is up to this opportunity to effectively have the federal government work.”
Ahuja objected to the ideas that federal employees aren’t working or are not committed to serving the American people, and noted that since agencies began bringing employees back to their traditional worksites last year, most employees split time between in-person work and telework.
“Throughout the pandemic, more than 50% of the workforce showed up every day and continues to do so,” she said. “I would like to also say that in 2022’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, almost 60% of respondents indicated that they put in significant in-person time. More than 85% of the federal workforce works outside of the national capital region, and since reentry and before reentry, we were very clear with agencies that agencies needed to consider their organizational health and performance when it comes to workplace arrangements and ensure that [telework and remote work] support performance within the organization.”
Although she could not speak specifically regarding other agencies’ service troubles, Ahuja said that in OPM’s case, managing long running backlogs in processing the retirement claims of departing federal employees is an issue of staffing, agency budgets and technology, not telework.
“We just have not had the resources,” she said. “I want to thank Congress for providing a [fiscal 2023] budget that is giving us more resources to hire staff. We’ve already improved processing times and are making a considerable dent in the inventory, and we are making progress on digitization of records, because it is a paper-based process, but it will take time to work through these challenges.”
Republicans on the committee repeatedly and exasperatedly asked Ahuja for a current snapshot of the federal workforce’s usage of telework, although the most recent data she could provide was from the 2022 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, which was administered in the spring of 2022. OPM produces an annual report on telework at federal agencies, but the most recent iteration of that report only covers the 2021 fiscal year.
Looking at Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey for 2021, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and 2022, administered early in federal agencies’ reentry process, shows a workforce that already is shifting substantially away from remote work to one that periodically comes into the office. However, OPM cautions against drawing conclusions from year-to-year comparisons on its telework question, as last year the agency tweaked language within the question to better reflect teleworking five days per week as “remote work.”
In 2021, 36% of survey respondents reported that they teleworked every day and 11% said they teleworked three or four days per week. Another 10% of respondents said they worked remotely one or two days per week, and an additional 12% said they worked remotely “infrequently” or once or twice per month. Nearly one-third of respondents said they did not telework at all in 2021.
By spring of 2022, the percentage of respondents who said they worked fully remote had fallen to 14%, while 25% of respondents said they teleworked three to four days per week. The percentage of survey respondents who reported working remotely one or two days per week increased to 17%, while 13% said they teleworked infrequently or once or twice per month. The percentage of federal employees who responded that they do not telework at all remained steady at 31%.
Last week, OPM announced a number of changes to agencies’ HR data requirements to expand data collection related to telework and provide both agencies and OPM with a better picture of the federal workforce’s use of workplace flexibilities, including tracking instances in which employees log into their work remotely, as well how many hours federal workers spend on telework. Ahuja said the effort will provide more transparency around workplace flexibilities, and better equip agencies to measure their effectiveness.
“Face time is not a proxy for performance,” she said. “We need to utilize these flexibilities in order to take advantage of what we have learned throughout the pandemic—that we’ve actually seen greater engagement, increased productivity and performance. And I’ll tell you, we’ve actually just announced new data variables that we’ll collect to provide more granular data on telework and remote work for agencies to use to discern productivity, performance, recruitment and retention.”
Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., offered an alternative explanation for House Republicans’ frustration: the lawmakers’ experiences trying to help constituents could be a lagging indicator of difficulties caused not by telework, but by trying to make work that traditionally had not been portable doable from home.
“When we talk about telework, I think there are two difficult things going on,” he said. “The frustration I think we’re hearing from a lot of my colleagues is the aftermath of universal remote working in a pandemic—that’s not a telework program . . . Robust telework programs existed before the pandemic and should exist after, and we want them to. We want them well-managed, overseen, productive, improving morale and we want to use those programs as part of the toolkit when we’re recruiting the next generation of federal employees who expect it, because they get it in the private sector. But some of the conversations we’ve had today conflate the two, and they are different.”
And Comer said that if Republicans are shown data proving that telework is a help, and not a hindrance, to agencies’ customer service, they would cease their attacks on the practice.
“We would support telework if we had evidence that it saves money and improves efficiency,” he said.