Return to the Office? FedSmith Readers Still Say Not Yet

A majority of FedSmith readers still say it’s too soon to return to in-person work, but the sentiment is not as strong as it was earlier this year.

FedSmith readers still say it is not time for federal employees to return to in-office work in greater numbers despite a recent push by the White House to do so.

President Biden announced during his State of the Union speech that federal employees would be returning to work in their agency offices in greater numbers.

Biden said, “It’s time for Americans to get back to work and fill our great downtowns again. People working from home can feel safe to begin to return to the office. We’re doing that here in the federal government. The vast majority of federal workers will once again work in person.”

He also discussed this in a letter he sent recently to the federal workforce in which he said that the federal workforce can “lead by example” in getting back to in-person work. This marked a departure from past sentiment where federal agencies were being encouraged to utilize maximum telework flexibilities to allow their employees to work at home to the greatest extent possible.

What Do FedSmith Readers Think About Returning to In-Person Work?

Given this apparent shift in philosophy about in-person work from the Biden administration, how do federal employees feel about it? We asked our readers in our latest survey if they think now is the time to resume working in their agency offices.

In our past surveys, the overwhelming sentiment was that federal employees did not want to work in their offices and wanted to remain on telework. Respondents usually said they did not feel safe around other people and/or were just as productive working remotely.

Latest Survey Responses

Has it changed this time?

Although fewer respondents said they think federal employees should continue teleworking to avoid COVID-19, the majority of respondents still say now is not the time for federal employees to return to in-office work.

  • 60% of survey respondents said that they do not believe federal employees should resume work in their agency offices.
  • 67% of respondents are currently teleworking to avoid COVID-19.

More respondents in this survey said their agencies have issued guidance on returning to in-person work. 51% said their agencies had issued guidance, 37% said their agencies had not, and another 12% were not sure if their agencies had or not.

Vaccination Rates Among Survey Respondents

Out of over 1,300 responses we received to the survey, nearly all respondents had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Only 8% of respondents said they had not received a vaccine, but 92% had at least one dose. The responses broke out as follows:

  • Received all required doses: 60%
  • Received all required doses and a booster: 31%
  • Received only partial required doses: 1%

These figures are up from our last survey on the subject in which only 52% of respondents said they had received all required doses.

91% of respondents said that they are considered in compliance with President Biden’s vaccine mandate. The vaccine mandate has been temporarily blocked by a court, but it is unclear at this point if the injunction will eventually be lifted since the Biden administration has been appealing the court ruling. It could eventually wind up before the Supreme Court to be decided.

How Do FedSmith Readers Feel About Telework vs. Returning to the Office?

The majority of respondents still feel that their job duties and missions of their agencies can be successfully carried out via telework. 67% of respondents said that they “agree completely” that their job duties can be performed remotely, while 72% said that they either completely or mostly agreed that their agencies’ missions could be carried out with employees working via telework. These numbers are nearly identical to our last survey.

A majority of respondents said that they feel safe returning to work in their offices. 48% of respondents said that they either “agree completely” or mostly agree that they feel physically safe returning to work in their agency offices.

In contrast to this, however, a majority of respondents said they still are afraid of catching COVID-19. Despite the majority of respondents saying they feel safe returning to in-person work, 45% of respondents said that they either “agree completely” or mostly agree with the statement, “I am concerned about contracting COVID-19 if I work in an office environment.”

So why do roughly the same percentage of respondents say they feel physically safe returning to in-person work yet also say they worry about getting COVID-19 if they do? There’s no way to know for sure why this apparent discrepancy exists. Perhaps respondents think that catching COVID-19 would not be as dangerous since the newer variants have been reported to be less severe, or perhaps being vaccinated makes respondents feel more safe to return to in-person work despite being worried about getting COVID-19. Anyone who responded to the survey is welcome to elaborate further about their answers in the comments below.

These numbers are in sharp contrast to our last survey. At that time, 53% of respondents said that they either completely disagreed or mostly disagreed with the statement, “I feel physically safe to return to work in my agency’s offices.”

Concerns about catching COVID-19 were higher in the last survey as well. 64% of respondents were concerned about getting it by working in an office environment versus only 45% feeling that way in this survey.

Respondents were more evenly split on their perceived threat of COVID-19. In response to the statement, “COVID has become more of a convenient reason for federal employees to not have to return to in-person work than a real physical threat,” 29% of respondents said that they “agree completely” while 32% said they “disagree completely.”

In our last survey, these results were not as evenly split. 44% of respondents said they disagreed with that statement completely whereas only 21% agreed completely.

The table below contains the full breakout of the response percentages to respondents’ sentiments about various aspects of COVID-19, telework and working in an office environment.

Disagree CompletelyNeutralAgree Completely
I feel physically safe to return to work in my agency’s offices20.6%14.5%17.2%14.4%33.3%
I am concerned about contracting COVID-19 if I work in an office environment26.1%14.1%14.4%13%32.4%
COVID has become more of a convenient reason for federal employees to not have to return to in-person work than a real physical threat31.5%13.1%14.9%11.1%29.3%
My agency can safely and effectively return its employees to work in our offices at this point21.4%15.7%20.2%14.3%28.3%
Additional safety protocols (i.e. cleaning, masks) are necessary in order for employees to return to work in agency offices22.3%11.2%20.2%17.1%29.3%
Federal employees are generally more productive when working remotely and/or via telework11.9%6.3%18.3%15.7%47.9%
My job duties can successfully be completed via telework9.5%5%7.9%10.9%66.7%
My agency’s mission can be successfully carried out with maximum telework flexibilities in place12.1%7.3%9.2%12.9%58.5%

Our thanks to all of our readers who took the time to share their feedback in our recent survey.

About the Author

Ian Smith is one of the co-founders of FedSmith.com. He enjoys writing about current topics that affect the federal workforce.