The Future of the Federal Workforce: What’s Next After the Pandemic?

What will the telework model look like after the pandemic?

As vaccine availability increases, the next logical question for many federal workers is, “what is work going to look like in the next few months?” And what are the longer term implications?

One thing we have learned from the pandemic is that the naysayers who said telework does not work were wrong. Those folks resisted telework for years, making every argument you can imagine about how telework is completely unworkable. I imagine many of them are preparing their arguments now to insist that every federal worker show up in a government office as soon as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says it is safe.

That mass return to the pre-pandemic status quo is not going to happen. The return is likely to look different depending on the agency and the type of work it does. Some will try to get as many employees back in the office as possible, while others will adopt a hybrid model. I believe the norm for most agencies will be a hybrid, with the degree of in-office time determined by mission requirements (such as direct customer interaction). How those hybrid work arrangements look is likely to evolve as agencies and employees learn what works, what doesn’t, and what is missing in terms of technology, security, work flow, and many additional factors. That means we should not expect the workplace to look like the pandemic-induced stay at home model, nor should we expect it to land in the right place on the first try. A lot of learning is going to be needed to find the right mix.

One question I am hearing is “why not just keep going with maximum telework?” There are a few reasons why that is not likely to work for most agencies. Here are just a few of the considerations that are likely to influence agency decisions.

  1. What is possible is not necessarily what is desirable. The move to maximum telework was a response to a life-or-death crisis. Agencies learned that it is possible to have far more telework than they imagined. That learning is good, and it removes many of the anti-telework arguments from some managers. There are downsides of maximum telework that we can live with in a pandemic, but may not want to have permanently. For example, how do we onboard new employees and give them a sense of being part of the organization? What do we lose when those casual interactions in the office that no longer happen? Much of what happens in a workplace is not in the formal meetings, or when employees are sitting at their desks. It comes from the unplanned interactions that happen every day. Those are not going to happen in the same way, and losing them entirely presents risks.
  2. What happens to the cities? Imagine Washington, DC if half of federal workers are no longer working in the city. Agencies will shrink their office footprint rather than paying rent on empty spaces. Sounds good, right? It may be good for agency budgets, but what happens to the commercial real estate market? What happens to the small businesses that provide service to those facilities? What happens to the restaurants? As the largest employer in some locations, the government may drive down the economies of some cities if it continues the amount of telework that we have experienced since last March. 
  3. How do we measure productivity? Some agencies have missions that lend themselves to measuring remote work. The processes and outputs are easily measured, and the agencies will have no trouble determining how productive employees are. Other agencies have work that does not lend itself to easy measurement. Even though most employees are productive at home, as we try to rebuild confidence in government, it will be critical that telework not be viewed as a way for people to get paid for not working. 
  4. Do people have to live close to their agency office? This is one of the big questions. If I can telework full time, why would my agency ask me to live nearby? The electrons flowing into and out of my computer work the same whether I am 5 or 5,000 miles away. Even if I am in a different time zone, I can still work the same core hours that everyone else would be required to work. This one is workable for some jobs, but not so much for others. Agencies will need to assess what the real in-person requirements are.
  5. My office is in DC, but I moved to Iowa. Why don’t I get DC locality pay? There are pros and cons of relocating to low-cost areas. Locality pay is intended to reflect to some degree the costs in the area where you work. If you change your work location to a different city, you will benefit from the low costs, but you cannot expect to continue to get paid for working in DC. 

It is clear that work and workplaces are going to change. It is also clear that we do not know how that will look and are not likely to have that knowledge soon. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and the General Services Administration (GSA) are considering how the federal workplace will look in the future. I expect OPM to issue guidance soon that will help agencies as they evolve their workplaces. The good news is that OPM is being proactive and has an experienced team dealing with the issue. 

The anti-government crowd will use increased telework to argue that government employees get paid for staying home all day. It does not matter that it is not true, and that most employees who work from home are at least as productive at home (and some even more productive). The people who do not want anything to change will argue that pandemic driven telework was a limited time necessity and a status quo ante approach is best. People who want maximum telework all the time will argue that we have proven it can work. 

I am sure there are folks who want to know now what the future will be. They want OPM to issue guidance today. They want governmentwide policies. And they want everyone to get it right on the first try. I think that is asking too much. The changes the pandemic brought were driven by necessity, and even then it took a while to get to where we are now. We should expect this process to evolve as agencies learn what will and will not work for them. We should expect OPM to give agencies flexibility, within a common set of principles, to adapt their workplaces to the realities they face. I am confident that what we will end up with is a reshaped federal workplace that is far more flexible than it was in the past.

This column was originally published on Jeff Neal's blog, ChiefHRO.com, and has been reposted here with permission from the author. Visit ChiefHRO.com to read more of Jeff's articles regarding federal human resources and other current events along with his insights on reforming the HR system.

About the Author

Jeff Neal is author of the blog ChiefHRO.com and was previously the chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.

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