Thousands of Federal Teleworkers Face a Fork in the Road

In the President’s Management Agenda, one of the three top priorities is building a workforce for the 21st Century. As we begin our journey, it’s not long before we come to a fork in the road. On one side, we see a path that will lead us to exceed the expectations of the public by improving our internal processes to meet the needs of our citizens. On the other side, we see a path that leads to tailoring job opportunities that will attract the best and brightest candidates who will support our missions.

Which road should we take? That little voice inside of our heads says that we will achieve the best outcome by finding a way to bridge the gap between them. We can recruit, upskill, and reskill while providing enriched, supportive opportunities that help us attract and retain highly-motivated, super-productive team members who will help us exceed expectations.

Introduction of Telework

Although there are many ways to approach the issue of internal reform versus hiring and retention strategies, one tool that has been implemented within the Federal Government is telework. According to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), “in practice, telework is a work arrangement that allows an employee to perform work, during any part of regular, paid hours, at an approved alternative worksite (e.g., home, telework center).”

Telework was initially introduced as an enticement to attract high-value employees and significantly reduce in-person wait times by promoting expanded phone and online services. It is different from remote work, where the employee is permanently working from a separate geographic area or mobile work, where the employee’s work location varies repeatedly.

Fans say…

Since telework was first implemented in the Federal Government, OPM provided an official system for determining eligibility and guidelines for telework agreements. This includes regular assessment of the positive or negative impact the arrangement has on the individual’s productivity and the agency’s delivery of citizen services. Some of the most treasured telework benefits for citizens, agencies, and government employees are outlined below.

Citizen Benefits

  • Significant reductions in government-occupied workspace save millions in taxpayer dollars.
  • Telework enables agencies to be always open virtually, even in bad weather.
  • Telework helps to decrease carbon emissions and has a positive impact on the environment, local traffic congestion, and parking.

Agency Benefits

  • The option of telework is a powerful incentive for recruitment and retention.
  • Free from the distractions of the workplace, teleworking employees typically demonstrate increased productivity.
  • The vast majority of citizens use the internet, decreasing the necessity for in-person meetings.

Employee Benefits

  • The flexibility of telework provides a greater work-life balance. Instead of spending hours in traffic, they have more time after work to spend with friends and family.
  • By utilizing telework, employees save money on fuel, maintenance, and other transportation costs.

Critics say…

Although OPM continues to encourage telework, not every agency promotes it, and a number of agencies, such as the Department of Education, the Department of the Interior, the Department of Agriculture, and most recently the Social Security Administration. These agencies have significantly reduced or even halted their participation in recent years, stating that current conditions call for a greater in-person presence in the office. Some of the challenges associated with telework for citizens, agencies, and government employees are outlined below.

Citizen Concerns

  • A segment of the citizens served, particularly those who are 70-years-old and older, prefers to speak to a representative in-person and will not utilize phone or online resources, reducing the potential benefits of a telework program.

Agency Concerns

  • When telework was implemented in the Federal Government, no government-wide processes were put in place to measure effectiveness and impact on the citizen’s experience.
  • Phone or video conferences can be more challenging and less productive than in-person meetings because participants are more likely to multitask instead of focusing on the discussion.
  • Evaluating employee performance is more challenging for supervisors of teleworking employees.

Employee Concerns

  • The ability to collaborate, be recognized for outstanding performance, or be considered for future opportunities may be limited by a lack of physical presence in the office.

What’s Really at Stake?

It’s one thing to say that a position is not eligible for telework, but it is another thing entirely to hire someone with the understanding that they will have this privilege, and later take it away. Many Federal employees have been facing this circumstance which has resulted in the following realities:

Impact on Citizens

  • As of November 22, 2019, the Social Security Administration is discontinuing its telework pilot (of nine years) to focus more intently on its customer service challenges due to the long wait times on the phone, in-person, and processing that have been reported.

Impact on Agencies

  • When telework programs were implemented, much of the office space was reduced (for sharing) or reconfigured (for alternate use) resulting in significant cost savings. As a result, agencies that are limiting or discontinuing their telework programs will need to find space for their employees to work.
  • Following recent telework reductions, a decline in morale, productivity, and retention has been seen among Federal employees, especially when the ability to telework had been a deciding factor in entering public service.
  • Understaffing that has been attributed to reductions in force and hiring freezes may have a more significant impact on customer experience and productivity than where the work is being conducted.

Impact on Employees

  • Many times, the decision to significantly reduce or end telework is part of an effort to address much more significant issues that are unrelated to the physical presence of employees.
  • The relationship between a supervisor and an employee is more crucial than whether the work is conducted in a government office or not.

Which Way Will You Turn?

As a Federal leader or employee, you are likely to have a strong opinion about this topic. Has your agency recently implemented a change in your telework policy? What was the reason for the change? Do you feel that this change will help your agency support its mission? How are impacted employees responding to the change?

We want to hear what you’ve got to say about telework in the Federal Government. Please leave your comments below or share your viewpoint on our social media channels.

Thanks to Leslie Keelty, EdD for contributing to this blog.

Written by:
Natalie Komitsky
Human Capital & Human Resources
Media Type:

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