The White House’s Office of Personnel Management is readying itself and other federal agencies to measure how telework is faring across government.
As part of a decade-long process, OPM puts out an annual data call for agencies to share quantitative and qualitative data on various yardsticks of telework, like eligibility, participation, cost savings and productivity. The office announced it would begin fiscal year 2022′s review in January with responses being collected until February and a final report debuting sometime later in the new year.
The COVID-19 pandemic made telework feel new for some and more normal for others, but OPM has been assessing telework as an oversight measure since the signing of the Telework Enhancement Act in 2010.
In the past two years, the reports have been a definitive indicator of how agencies adjusted operations during a public health crisis. This year, as society distances itself from the pandemic, many may look to this report as confirmation or denial of their own philosophies on returning to the workplace, which currently varies in implementation from agency to agency and even within departments.
The 2020 report, the latest one available, shows 90% of eligible federal employees participated in telework — a significant increase compared to previous years. It also showed positive implications for recruitment, retention and morale. It was also a way for agencies to facilitate productivity by reducing distractions, some said.
Anecdotally, employees say telework helps them continue to care for their dependents, save money on commutes and live where they can afford to. Naysayers, however, say that they want more hard data on productivity to prove telework is not just a nice-to-have perk.
Calls for data and accountability underpinned questioning by several members of Congress during the House Subcommittee on Government Operations hearing in July on the future of the federal workforce.
“When people do not work in person, then it becomes very problematic for what they’re able to accomplish,” said U.S. Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-Ga.), during the hearing. “... It’s unacceptable that many federal employees are teleworking more than two-and-a-half years since the start of COVID-19.”
Rep. Jody Hice of Georgia and Congressman Andy Biggs of Arizona, both Republicans, also brought up frustrations with customer service being allegedly upended by the pandemic.
The Government Accountability Office has also pushed OPM to improve its collection of government-wide telework information. In 2017, it found that agencies may report to OPM’s annual data call using a variety of systems that define and track telework measures differently.
In an effort to better its data collection, in 2019, OPM updated its Enterprise Human Resources Integration database of payroll data to track telework use by federal employees.
OPM officials agreed that payroll data in EHRI could be eventually substituted for OPM’s current telework data call given improvements to that system. As of March, that hadn’t happened yet because the agency said it lacked the resources to make EHRI reliable in line with GAO’s recommendations.
“Until OPM develops a plan to fully implement our recommendations to improve data reliability issues with its EHRI payroll data, it will continue to be unable to precisely assess telework usage across agencies and provide a full and accurate picture to Congress to support oversight,” said the February GAO report.
Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.