For many feds, remote telework may be permanent

(AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)

For nearly two years now, federal government employees with jobs that don’t necessarily require their physical presence at their workplace have been engaged in what’s now come to be known as “telework,” or working from home. This was viewed as a way to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, allowing workers to avoid being exposed to potentially infected colleagues. But as the pandemic has slowly settled into being an endemic part of modern life and the country has largely reopened, many are wondering when it will be time to finally go back to the “normal” way of doing things and return to the office full time. Well, according to new guidelines released this week by the Office of Personnel Management, the answer may turn out to be “never.” OPM is encouraging all agencies to make telework a “major part of their workforce policies” on a permanent basis. (Government Executive)

The Office of Personnel Management on Friday encouraged agencies to ensure that telework is a major part of their workforce policies on a permanent basis, even following the COVID-19 pandemic that has forced many federal workers to work from home for nearly two years.

OPM Director Kiran Ahuja announced the publication of long-awaited guidance on telework and remote work in a memo to agency heads. The 79-page guidance marks the first major update to the federal government’s telework policy in a decade.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, federal employees demonstrated their resiliency, whether continuing to report to their workplace to carry out their mission or adapting with no notice to a maximum telework environment,” Ahuja wrote.

I’ll be the first to admit that remote work offers opportunities to both private companies and government agencies that could wind up saving them money and improving efficiency. But that’s only true if those entities fully transform their working models. With fewer people working in the office, office space could be reduced, slashing the organization’s overhead costs. But the new guidance from OPM doesn’t sound as if that’s part of the plan at all. It includes phrases such as “the opportunity to telework at least occasionally.”

If a worker is only engaging in telework “occasionally,” that means that they still have to have a desk and workstation waiting for them back at the office. And if there are any people in that office space, the lights will still have to be on, along with any heating or air conditioning that’s provided. You’re not going to reduce space or overhead costs that way.

Further, while telework can be a great opportunity for some workers and administrators, it’s definitely not for everyone. One study released before the pandemic had even struck found that remote workers experienced higher levels of anxiety and depression. Further, as any manager will tell you, there are some employees who simply don’t have the work ethic to put in the full, required amount of effort without a supervisor looking over their shoulder from time to time. So while this was seen as a productive option during the pandemic, it probably shouldn’t be viewed as a permanent panacea.

Personally, I’ve never run into any issues when it comes to remote working. With the exception of a couple of years where I was doing some contract work that kept me on the road quite a bit, I’ve been working from home for almost two decades. I haven’t even visited our home office in Virginia since February of 2020 and all of our team conferences are done online. It works well for us, but as I said, it’s clearly not for everyone. If the federal government is bound and determined to do this, it shouldn’t be done without some benefits for the taxpayers. If they can shut down some of their office space or at least move it to cheaper areas outside of the Beltway and trim their budgets, then I could support this idea. But if they’re just going to maintain the same behemouth of physical infrastructure and all the costs that entails while telling workers they can log in from their living rooms, I don’t see much of a benefit coming from this.