Issue Briefs

Following is the portion of a recent OPM report on the jumps in eligibility, participation and frequency of telework in fiscal 2020, showing that almost all of it was related to the pandemic.


COVID-19 Considerations

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Prior to reviewing the results of the 2020 OPM Telework Data Call, it is imperative to highlight the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic on agency telework postures and subsequent data collection. In March 2020, agencies within the Federal Government were provided guidance directing the implementation of a maximum telework posture, as feasible, with consideration to mission accomplishment. This directive led to significant changes in telework eligibility, participation, and data collection requirements. Accordingly, some of the data outcomes provided in response to the 2020 OPM Telework Data Call were inconsistently measured or defined. For the purposes of this report, and to ensure a high level of validity, only the data outcomes that are consistent, reliable, and verifiably accurate are included in the below analysis. The implication of this analysis is critical to understanding the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on telework practices and efficacy.

Eligibility, Participation, and Frequency

The Act requires OPM to report information on telework eligibility, participation, and frequency of participation. OPM strongly encourages agencies to submit fiscal year data where possible, as fiscal year data ideally incorporate monthly or seasonal variation in participation. Capturing fiscal year data was especially critical for analyzing the significant impact the COVID-19 pandemic had on Governmentwide telework participation in 2020. For that reason, OPM’s 2020 online data collection tool required agencies to certify any claimed inability to collect and aggregate telework data across the fiscal year, and, in such cases, to report data for September 2020. For the 2020 Data Call, approximately 91 percent of agencies (n=79) reported fiscal year telework participation data. For the overall fiscal year, 79 agencies reported a total of 942,098 teleworkers in 2020. For September estimates, 8 agencies reported a total of 113,238 teleworkers. Combined, this is a total of 1,055,336 teleworkers reported for the 2020 reporting cycle.

Some agencies (8%) were unable to provide data for every question asked by OPM, as is evident from the varying number of agencies providing data for different questions. To mitigate the issue of uneven data availability, the data discussed in this report represent results using percentages for agencies able to provide data for all the variables required to compute percentages for valid comparisons. Data for individual agencies and subagencies are reported in the corresponding appendices.

Eligibility

Agencies reported that 50 percent of all Federal employees were eligible to telework in fiscal year 2020— 11 percentage points higher than reported in fiscal year 2019. Telework eligibility is determined by each agency based on agency-specific criteria. Even though Federal employees were in a maximum telework environment, many essential roles were not identified as telework eligible by agencies. These data represent all eligibility data, including agencies that chose to report September pay period data instead of tracking eligibility over the duration of the fiscal year.

Participation

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Agencies reported 45 percent of all Federal employees participated in fiscal year 2020 and 90 percent of telework eligible employees participated in fiscal year 2020. Compared to 2019, these data suggest significant increases in overall participation— a 23 percent increase in participation across all employees and a 34 percent increase among eligible employees. Increases in participation can be attributed to changes in agency telework policy and COVID-19 pandemic response activities. Responses from the COVID-19 specific questions on the Data Call indicate that 86 percent of agencies were able to utilize telework to the maximum extent possible, with over 80 percent of their workforce engaging in full-time telework during this period.

In the 2020 FEVS, prior to the pandemic, 43 percent of all Federal employees reported teleworking—two percentage points higher than the 41 percent who reported teleworking in 2019. During the peak of the pandemic, the FEVS reported telework participation levels of 78 percent. The different telework participation estimates from the FEVS and Data Call reflect the differences in the level of data collection, question wording, and survey administration timeframe. The FEVS asked individual employees about their telework participation at the time of survey administration, while the Data Call asked agency-level respondents to report participation using administrative records for the fiscal year.

Reasons for Changes in Participation

Agencies that reported changes in participation (increase or decrease) of more than 10 percent between fiscal years 2019 and 2020 were asked to provide reasons for the change, as required by the Act. Of the 83 agencies that reported a change in fiscal year data, 78 agencies reported a telework increase and 5 reported a decrease.

The most common explanations for those agencies that increased participation included the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, workforce growth, and policy changes to increase eligibility for situational telework. Among the five agencies reporting a decrease, attrition was the most common explanation.

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Frequency of Participation

In an effort to accurately capture telework that occurred as part of the COVID-19 response, in March 2020 OPM advised agencies that had the ability to code telework as emergency or pandemic to use that option and to report these numbers as a subcategory of situational telework data for the 2020 Telework Data Call. This specifically included telework that falls outside of an employee’s normal routine telework schedule and non-telework program participants who are required or permitted to work from home under a Continuity of Operations (COOP) plan and/or an agency action under 5 CFR 550.409. Agencies that did not have this capability were advised to report such arrangements as situational telework.

Among the 63 agencies reporting emergency telework conducted during fiscal year 2020, 376,597 employees were reported as engaging in emergency telework. For the six agencies reporting September 2020 data, 49,434 employees were reported as engaging in emergency telework. These totals include both telework program participants and non-participants who were directed to telework under circumstances outlined above. Agencies were able to provide additional context for their ability to report emergency/pandemic telework.

OPM also asked that agencies continue to direct employees who have regular routine telework schedules to accurately report routine telework as required under the employee’s telework agreement. For fiscal year 2020, agencies reported that 76 percent of teleworkers teleworked on a situational basis. In terms of routine telework, 57 percent teleworked three or more days per two-week period, 13 percent teleworked one to two days per two-week period, and 5 percent teleworked no more than once per month. The 2020 FEVS collected data on telework frequency by asking employees to self-report participation in five categories: (1) I telework very infrequently, on an unscheduled or short-term basis (15 percent of teleworkers); (2) I telework, but only about 1 or 2 days per month (6 percent of teleworkers); (3) I telework, but no more than 1 or 2 days per month (5 percent of teleworkers); (4) I telework 1 or 2 days per week (16 percent of teleworkers); and (5) I telework 3 or 4 days per week (5 percent of teleworkers). These data are not comparable to Data Call results because the FEVS did not distinguish between routine and situational telework, and employees could only choose one response category. For agencies solely reporting September 2020 data, 78 percent of employees teleworked three or more days per two-week pay period, 32 percent of teleworkers teleworked on a situational basis, 19 percent teleworked one to two days per two-week period, and 10 percent teleworked no more than once per month.

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