Flexibility can help government agencies overcome recruitment barriers and limit turnover.

Flexibility can help government agencies overcome recruitment barriers and limit turnover. Rudzhan Nagiev/Getty Images

Expanding flexible work options in the federal government is no longer optional

COMMENTARY | To retain and attract top talent, government and public-sector employers must take the lead in adopting and adapting to flexible work arrangements.

Telework at federal agencies sparked better employee engagement and retention; resulted in improvements to agency goals and performance; and saved taxpayer money on reduced real estate and energy.

These are among the findings from the Office of Personnel Management’s annual report on workplace flexibility and they confirm what those who recruit for government organizations already know: that remote or hybrid schedules not only are effective, but they can become a secret weapon in  attracting top talent.

A case in point is in a remote area of a Western state known for its fiery sunsets, sweeping vistas and independent spirit, where a small municipality and its workforce have been doing their thing for nearly 10 years. With a population of 7,438, Page, Ariz., embraced workplace flexibility long before COVID-19 forced it onto employers’ to-do lists. 

When Page implemented a 10-hour, four-day work week in 2017, residents accepted City Hall being closed Fridays, and most town workers, except police and fire, were rewarded with three-day weekends, all year. That prescient perk has become a tool for successfully recruiting employees who place a premium on flexible schedules. Retention also improved, particularly among senior staff.

Employers of all sizes would do well to take a page from the Page playbook.

Government and public-sector organizations often grapple with old stereotypes of being out of touch, stodgy and lacking imagination, while struggling to compete with private enterprises on salary and benefits. But Page is an example of how flexible work schedules can even the playing field and open the floodgates to best-in-class talent.

Simply, embracing flex options could propel government agencies into leading the future of work.

Recent reports note that large companies, including UPS, JPMorgan Chase and Boeing, are insisting their employees return full-time to the office. “I feel like four days a week, five days a week is kind of the same right now,” one CEO said.

Never mind four days a week — Page is offering one or two days in the office in its search for a new assistant city attorney. No relocation required. The town’s forward-thinking stance has considerably broadened our ongoing recruitment efforts.

At Duffy Group, we call this the “sizzle,” a compelling amenity that can help set the hook and reel in a great hire. 

The “sizzle” in the city of Littleton, Colo., isn’t the Rocky Mountains, although they do beckon. Rather, on a case-by-case basis, Littleton is offering  flexible work of three days in office/two days remote, or 4/1. The same is true In Marina, Calif., a bayside town on the picturesque California Central Coast, that also is writing policies for remote/hybrid options.

The Benefits of Flexible Work

Flexibility helps government agencies overcome recruitment barriers and limit turnover intention. In another recent survey of federal, state and local government employees by Virginia-based Eagle Hill Consulting, nearly half of respondents said they might consider leaving their jobs if flexibility is removed. Moreover, 60% of remote and hybrid government workers said their job satisfaction would decrease and 44% predicted productivity would fall if their employers mandated full-time RTO.

But the OPM report noted a drop in the percentage of eligible employees participating in telework, from 94% in FY2021, to 87% in FY2022. My reading of the decrease is that, now that we’ve given people an opportunity to come back into the office, all of those who want to return have already done so.

Don’t look now, but the nation’s largest municipality may be getting on board. New York City has a union contract with nearly 90,000 municipal employees that, in part, establishes a committee to explore flexible work options. Perhaps Page can advise.

Now more than ever, flexible work matters to Americans, according to a survey conducted by McKinsey & Co., workers’ three motivations for seeking new jobs, in order are greater pay or more hours, better career opportunities and flexible working arrangements.

Where to Begin

When the workplace was forced to go remote four years ago, the right technology didn’t exist and many workers did not have established office space in their homes, nor solutions for at-home distractions. Employers didn’t know how to monitor workers from their homes, and new key performance indicators were needed.

Since then, many of the kinks have been worked out, but pitfalls — such as being inconsistent with and unspecific about fair and non-chaotic implementation — remain, and guardrails are needed. Detailed operating and technology policies and procedures, guidelines on issuing devices for out-of-office work, and actual deployment are necessary.

One helpful resource is this comprehensive checklist from the Government Finance Officers Association. Also worth a look is this OPM fact sheet on flexible work schedules.

With an estimated 92 million U.S. employees working from home for all or part of the week, according to the McKinsey report, flexibility in the workplace is here to stay.

Melissa Barker is vice president, Practice Development, with special expertise in recruiting for government and public-sector organizations at Duffy Group, a global recruitment firm based in Phoenix, Ariz.