In June 2021, the Office of Management and Budget, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), and the General Services Administration released memorandum M-21-25, requiring agencies to complete planning for determining how and when to return Federal employees to the workplace. The guidance gave agencies the ability to “deploy personnel policies such as telework, remote work, and flexible work schedules as strategic management tools to be competitive in the broader labor market in attracting, retaining, and engaging talent.”
Additional guidance issued by OPM in July suggested that agencies start reassessing work schedules and frequency of telework based upon their experiences during the pandemic, and reestablish them in a way that best meets mission needs. OPM also noted that supervisors “may see mission delivery, productivity, or employee engagement benefits in extending flexibilities related to telework and alternative work schedules.”
In 2011, the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) published the report Telework: Weighing the Information, Determining an Appropriate Approach. This report discussed issues and considerations that organizations should weigh when deciding how to integrate telework into their business strategies and operations.
Many of the themes from the report are relevant to today’s circumstance. It discussed the various benefits telework can have for individual employees, as well as the overall organization. It also pointed out challenges organizations would likely face in implementing telework programs.
Below are some of the key takeaways agencies should consider as they identify how telework and other workplace flexibilities will be used to support the mission post-pandemic.
Managers and supervisors should recognize that the optimal approach to telework will continue to evolve over time, and may evolve differently within different work units. They should be flexible and open to trying new approaches, working through any issues that may arise. In addition, agencies should use their own return-to-work surveys, results of the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS), and productivity measures to make informed, data-driven decisions about post-pandemic telework.
Agency leaders must also ensure that supervisors are prepared for their role and can manage teleworkers and non-teleworkers effectively. Supervisors must have effective performance management skills to make sound decisions about telework eligibility and continuing its use, and to ensure fair treatment of teleworkers and non-teleworkers. Objective performance management practices can help supervisors exercise good and fair judgment and make decisions based on employee merit and not solely on employee location.
Employees also have a role to play in agency telework programs. They should assess their own work habits and preferred routines to determine what level of telework, if any, is right for them. Not all employees or jobs are suitable for telework. Employees who telework should maintain their performance and fully engage with their supervisors, coworkers, customers, and other relevant parties.
Telework has many potential benefits for organizations and employees alike. In addition to organizational benefits in areas such as continuity of operations, emergency preparedness, need for less office space, and enhanced recruitment and retention, telework can also yield employee benefits in the areas of work-life balance, reduced commuting time and cost, and improved employee engagement. As noted in our report, our survey results show an association between telework and employee engagement: 65 percent of employees who agreed that their supervisor encourages and supports telework were engaged, compared with only 31 percent of employees who disagreed. In addition, OPM reported in its analysis of conditions that drive employee engagement that employees who telework have higher scores on that measure than employees who do not telework (based on FEVS results from 2012-2015).
OPM’s 2020 FEVS also looked at the impact of maximum telework and more flexible work schedules during the pandemic. OPM’s Governmentwide Management Report indicates that workplace flexibilities played a significant role in ensuring employees were able to meet work and family responsibilities. Prior to the pandemic, only 3 percent of employees teleworked daily, but that number grew to a record 59 percent at the peak of the pandemic. In addition, the FEVS results demonstrate that even during a time of maximum telework and more flexible work schedules, over 80 percent of respondents agreed that the people they work with cooperate to get the job done, their agency is successful at accomplishing its mission, and they know how their work relates to the agency’s goals. These results obviously differ by agency and even by organization/office, but they indicate that it is important to consider how these flexibilities affected organizational mission accomplishment during very trying times to map the path forward.
The use of post-pandemic telework may increase in Federal organizations based on the experience they gained with this workplace flexibility during the pandemic. To determine what level of telework is appropriate, those organizations should carefully review data regarding such things as organizational productivity and employee attitudes during the period of maximum telework. Such important considerations should not be left solely to individual desires or beliefs that office productivity automatically improves when more employees are physically in the work space.
This column was originally published in the U.S. Merit System Protection Board’s newsletter, Issues of Merit, and has been re-posted here with permission from the authors and editor. Visit http://www.mspb.gov/studies to read more of MSPB’s newsletters and studies on topics related to Federal human capital.