Congress’s Misconceptions on Federal vs. Private Sector Telework

A CBO report on telework trends between federal employees and private sector workers contradicts beliefs of some lawmakers in Congress.

In a recent hearing with the House Oversight and Accountability Committee, the surprising revelation that federal workers telework less than their private-sector counterparts left many lawmakers baffled.

This misunderstanding was highlighted when Rob Shriver, the Acting Director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), cited a newly-released  Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report comparing federal and private sector teleworking habits. Contrary to the prevalent belief among Congress members critical of telework, the report revealed that by the end of 2022, only 22% of federal employees typically worked from home, compared to 25% of private-sector employees.

The CBO’s analysis provided a clear and controlled comparison of telework habits, considering variables such as education, location, and occupation. Despite controlling for these factors, the results were consistent: private-sector employees were more likely to telework than federal employees. This fact challenged the narrative that federal workers were more prone to teleworking, a misconception that some lawmakers had been promoting as part of a broader tendency to emphasize talking points over evidence on this topic.

One of the most notable moments during the hearing came when Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Wisc., expressed his disbelief at the data. “Did you say that federal employees got back to work quicker than in the private sector?” he asked incredulously.

Shriver reaffirmed the findings, emphasizing the validity of the CBO report and noting that 54% of federal workers do not telework at all.

The report also highlighted that telework was more common in urban areas and among more educated workers in both sectors. For instance, in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, 40% of private-sector workers teleworked compared to 38% of federal workers. This slight difference further dispelled the myth of federal employees disproportionately working from home.

Certain occupations showed even more significant disparities. In computer and mathematical fields, for example, 56% of private-sector workers teleworked, whereas only 37% of federal employees did. These figures suggest that the private sector not only embraced telework more widely but also offered more opportunities for remote work in specific high-demand fields.

The CBO report also touched on the implications of telework opportunities for recruitment and retention within the federal workforce. It noted that employees are generally willing to accept lower pay in exchange for the flexibility to work from home. This trend suggests that the federal government’s lesser emphasis on telework could hinder its ability to attract and retain talent. “Limited evidence indicates that U.S. workers would be willing to give up about 8% of their salary, on average, to work from home about half the time,” the CBO reported.

Additionally, other studies have found that telework options can significantly improve employee retention, particularly in sectors where remote work is feasible and productive.

The hearing showcased a significant disconnect between lawmakers’ perceptions and the actual data. Anti-telework rhetoric has been prevalent among certain members of Congress since the pandemic, portraying federal teleworkers as less productive. However, the data presented by Shriver and corroborated by various studies painted a different picture. 

Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Fla., played a pivotal role in clarifying the situation for his colleagues. Armed with a CBO report chart, he emphasized that the private sector was indeed outpacing the federal government in telework adoption. Moskowitz’s pointed question to Shriver underscored the irony of the situation: “The private sector is outpacing us in teleworking! Do you think my colleagues should file a resolution of disapproval of the private sector because of all this teleworking that the private sector is doing?”

To counter the skepticism around telework, Shriver and other officials highlighted data demonstrating the effectiveness and productivity of remote work. An OPM report noted that telework had led to higher levels of work-life balance, increased productivity, and improved performance management within federal agencies. These findings were supported by the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS), where more than 84% of respondents agreed that their work units were producing high-quality work and meeting customer needs.

Furthermore, recent data from the Department of Education provided concrete examples of increased productivity with telework. In 2022, the department issued nearly $70 billion in grants, a significant increase from $46 billion in 2019. They also resolved nearly 17,000 civil rights complaints and forgave $13 billion in student loans, underscoring the capability of remote federal employees to maintain high performance levels.

Beyond productivity, telework has also brought financial benefits. The Department of Education’s flexible remote work plan, for instance, saved the agency nearly $9 million in annual rent. This cost-saving aspect of telework further supports the argument for its continued use and expansion within federal agencies.

The disconnect between lawmakers’ perceptions and the reality of telework in the federal workforce highlights the need for better communication and understanding of telework’s benefits. As the federal government continues to navigate the post-pandemic landscape, embracing flexible work arrangements could be crucial for attracting and retaining talent, maintaining productivity, and achieving cost savings. 

The recent hearing served as a wake-up call for Congress, revealing that the private sector has been leading in telework adoption. Moving forward, it will be essential for federal agencies and lawmakers to align their policies with the evolving work preferences of employees and the demonstrated benefits of telework. By doing so, the federal government can not only enhance its workforce’s efficiency and satisfaction but also remain competitive in a rapidly changing labor market.

Dr. Gleb Tsipursky was named “Office Whisperer” by The New York Times for helping leaders overcome frustrations with hybrid work as the CEO of the future-of-work consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts, and he wrote the best-seller called “Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams.”