With the pace of Coronavirus inoculations accelerating both inside and outside the federal workforce, signs are emerging of the federal workplace on the other side of the pandemic.
For more than a year hundreds of thousands of employees have been working remotely exclusively or nearly exclusively while others have continued reporting to regular workplaces, many of them thinned by the absence of teleworking colleagues.
Federal agencies also have made unprecedented use of alternative work schedules and hybrid work arrangements—in the office some days, teleworking others—and have shown unwonted flexibility in terms of scheduling and taking leave and in allowing employees to work from home with children needing care also present.
For now, such flexibility still is widespread under an OMB memo telling agencies to “maximize the use of remote work during widespread community transmission. Unless it is physically impossible or poses a threat to critical national security interests, generally speaking, occupancy in federal workplaces should be no more than 25% of normal capacity during periods of significant or high community transmission” of the virus.
Questions have arisen nearly since the outset of the pandemic a year ago, though, regarding how committed agencies will be to those flexibilities once the country no longer is considered to be in a period of “significant or high community transmission”—which the OMB memo does not define. Before the pandemic began, for example, use of telework had flattened off government-wide and had declined in some agencies despite years of policies favoring its availability for just the sort of continuity of operations needs that ultimately arose.
Two agencies that had cut back telework under the Trump administration, the Agriculture Department and the SSA, recently issued messages “looking beyond the pandemic,” in the words of the former. In a memo to agencies, USDA repealed its restrictive telework policy of 2018, and said it was working on a new policy, although for the meantime it is remaining in maximum telework status.
“In addition to the increased availability of telework, we want to evaluate positions that are suitable to be located at virtual duty stations, allowing greater flexibility to secure talent wherever it exists,” it says, suggesting that long-term employees will be less concentrated in traditional offices.
The SSA meanwhile has issued a statement saying that “as we examine our work in a new light, we are asking which lessons learned could improve service beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.” Those lessons included, it said, that following widespread closings of community offices, the agency has been able to shift formerly in-person services to phone, video and online service.
“Some of these concepts also allow us to consider how we might continue to use telework, something that most organizations and companies have depended on during the COVID-19 pandemic, to drive longer-term operational efficiencies like reducing space,” it said. “We could use those savings to provide you more online service options and hire more people to serve you more quickly as well as to retain outstanding employees.”
Both promised to engage stakeholders including federal employee unions in those decisions.
The potential for savings through reduced need for office space likely will be a consideration, although many are under long-term leases in rented space; selling government-owned buildings, meanwhile, is subject to processes whose length and complexity have drawn numerous reform proposals over many years.
Productivity likely will be another consideration. Even under the Trump administration, senior officials had made comments that productivity in the “maximum telework” environment has been at least as good if not better than before. However, there have been only scant data behind those assertions; whether such improvements can be documented or not could have a significant effect on long-term planning.
There meanwhile have been suggestions that productivity has been boosted by employees working longer hours than normal because so many other life activities have been disrupted—implying that employees in effect have been giving the government free labor, and that it won’t continue indefinitely.