Forcing Feds Into the Office Is a Mistake. Here's Why.
An arbitrary reduction in telework is likely to drive an exodus of qualified federal workers seeking flexibility to the private sector.
Many federal employees are feeling the dread of the unknown as the future of their ability to telework appears uncertain. As the COVID-19 public health emergency expires, so too does the federal mandate of maximum telework.
The COVID-19 pandemic ushered in an era of change in how many employees approach what it means to be “at work.” In March 2020, the Office of Management and Budget issued guidance to federal agencies, asking them to allow for maximum telework for positions that would allow it. As a result, participation in telework programs exploded: by fiscal 2021, 94% of eligible federal employees were teleworking, as compared to 56% in fiscal 2019.
Maximum telework has been styled as having the interest of organizations, versus the interest of the workers, in direct opposition. Certainly, this is how Republican lawmakers represent it: even before the public health emergency expired, Rep. James Comer, R-Kentucky, introduced H.R. 139, the Stopping Home Office Work’s Unproductive Problems Act (“SHOW UP” Act), which is now in the Senate, proposing that all federal agencies roll back their telework policies to only those that were in effect on Dec. 31, 2019. Comer argued that increased telework “crippled the ability of agencies to get their jobs done and created backlogs.”
Although the Biden administration has stopped short of stating that telework has a deleterious effect on productivity, OMB Deputy Director for Management Jason Miller issued guidance last month that there is “the general expectation that agency headquarters will continue to substantially increase in-person presence in the office” now that the public health emergency has ended.
Despite misinformation to the contrary, however, increased telework has been a success by most measurable markers. OPM estimates that telework provided a total cost savings of more than $90 million across the federal government. Federal employees state that it improves their performance, and there is initial data that supports this impression. Moreover, it improves employee satisfaction and acts as an important recruitment tool for attracting qualified applicants near and far.
Why does the flexibility provided by telework matter, beyond the obvious cost or productivity benefits? Simply put, very few people embody the characteristics of the “ideal worker” who has the ability – and the desire – to put work before all else.
Working parents need flexibility to work from home when daycare sends their children home with a runny nose, or unexpectedly closes due to COVID-19 exposure. Pregnant workers, even those who are vaccinated, remain especially vulnerable to COVID-19 infections.
Employees with disabilities need the ability to telework on days they receive dialysis, or are unable to commute due to medication, or experience increased light sensitivity during a migraine. While reasonable accommodations exist for these employees, it is often an onerous process to obtain them, and they can be denied for specious reasons.
And the statistics tell us that remote work attracts candidates that might not otherwise apply for federal jobs: in one study, OPM found that jobs offering remote work received many more applications from military spouses; a higher percentage of female and minority applicants; and a wider geographical range of candidates.
Make no mistake: what the federal government does in this moment will impact the entire civilian workforce. At best, an arbitrary reduction in telework is likely to drive an exodus of qualified federal workers seeking flexibility to the private sector, only further compounding failures of productivity – not remedying them. At worst, it will gut the federal government of the valuable – and vulnerable – employees it purports to want to attract. It would be an error to discard the progress we have made over the past two-and-a-half years based on political whim. The federal government’s ongoing goal is to be the model employer, and by doing so, to attract a diverse workforce that is a reflection of the country it serves. If the expiration of the public health emergency causes a significant step backward in telework policies, that goal will not be met.
Alexis Tsotakos is senior associate and head of the federal disability retirement practice at Gilbert Employment Law.