Back to the Office? Federal Employees Say No Thanks

Federal employees indicated in a survey on telework that they are generally against returning to in-office work.

In the evolving landscape of work, the push for federal employees to return to office spaces has sparked a complex dialogue about productivity, workplace culture, and the very nature of work itself. The forced shift back to office environments under the Biden administration – under pressure from Republicans in Congress – has left many federal workers questioning the rationale behind this move. With insights from a Federal News Network survey, this exploration delves deep into the disconnect between leadership intentions and employee experiences, highlighting the broader implications for organizational strategy.

As we navigate the post-pandemic environment, there is a clear and present misalignment between the objectives articulated by federal leadership and the actual experiences of employees. Approximately 30% of the 6,338 federal workers surveyed are fully remote, while a mere 6% are entirely in-office, leaving a significant majority navigating a hybrid work setup. Despite the stated intentions to foster enhanced collaboration and productivity, over half of these employees report that the rationale behind returning to the office has not been clearly communicated by senior leadership, with more than a third in strong disagreement with the stated purposes.

The statistics from the survey paint a telling picture: 64% of respondents working on a hybrid schedule find themselves less productive in the office compared to their remote setups. This sentiment starkly contrasts with the anticipated benefits of increased in-person collaboration as noted in the April 2023 memo from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The memo underscores a vision for “purposeful, well-planned” in-person work, yet the reality, as voiced by the workforce, narrates a different story. Employees are questioning why they need to commute to an office only to participate in the same virtual meetings they could attend from home.

In fact, these numbers bear out findings from the recent Office of Personnel Management report about telework in the federal government. It showed that an overwhelming 84 percent of both employees and management expressed a firm belief in the power of telework to improve the standards of work quality and client satisfaction.

For many respondents, coming into the office has led to little difference in collaboration — and has even been a hindrance for some. Disruptions from coworkers and exhaustion from long commutes contribute negatively to employees’ ability to get their job done. Furthermore, the introduction of “core collaboration days,” intended to optimize in-person interactions, has not yielded the expected results. Responses were predominantly neutral or negative regarding the impact of these designated days on work-related tasks and interpersonal relationships. More than 40% of respondents said these days are adversely affecting staff morale, with about half reporting that these days actually make them less productive.

The shift back to office work has not only affected productivity but has also shaped perceptions of leadership. While 49% of federal employees feel that the return-to-office changes have not altered their view of senior leaders, a significant 47% now hold a more negative view, with less than 5% having a more positive view. This sentiment is critical, as it reflects broader distrust in the motives and decision-making of those at the helm.

Notably, close to three-quarters of feds said return-to-office changes didn’t impact their views of immediate supervisors or managers, indicating that they place more direct responsibility on senior leaders for these changes. Only 22% said the changes had a negative impact on their views of supervisors.

Many employees express a belief that the push for in-office attendance is less about enhancing work outcomes and more about political motivations or economic considerations. This skepticism underscores a disconnect between leadership’s publicized goals and the workforce’s perceived reality, highlighting a need for greater transparency and alignment in organizational objectives. Federal employees widely suspect that these mandates are politically motivated, aimed at responding to congressional concerns, or intended to revitalize local economies. This perception suggests a misalignment not just in the execution of policies but in the foundational goals that these policies are supposed to serve.

The collective discontent highlighted by the survey suggests a pressing need for an overhaul of current strategies. Federal leaders must ask themselves whether the traditional office model serves the best interest of a modern workforce. They need to consider adopting more flexible, data-driven approaches that prioritize employee well-being and productivity over mere physical presence.

As we consider these findings, it becomes apparent that effective leadership in the new era of work isn’t just about enforcing compliance with top-down mandates. It involves listening to employee feedback, analyzing the effectiveness of implemented policies, and being willing to adapt strategies in response to the evolving needs of the workforce. The future of work should not be dictated by outdated norms but should be shaped by a commitment to innovation and responsiveness.

These insights call for a more nuanced approach to managing work environments—one that balances the benefits of in-person collaboration with the flexibility and productivity gains of remote work. Moving forward, it is crucial that federal agencies craft policies that are not only responsive to the changing landscape of work but are also reflective of the voices and experiences of their employees. As we strive to optimize our work environments, we must ensure that they are designed to foster productivity, satisfaction, and genuine collaboration, reflecting the true spirit of what it means to work together in the 21st century.

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.”