WASHINGTON — The status of federal telework remains murky as the pandemic wanes, with only about one in three government workers fully back in the office, according to the latest Office of Personnel Management survey of more than a half-million employees.
The government as a whole has painted the issue in broad strokes for months, delegating much of the authority to individual agency heads to duke it out with labor unions and employee groups about how best to recall employees to the workplace.
Though agencies began repealing emergency telework plans last year, OPM, part of the White House, encouraged agencies in a July 23 memo to consider all the options associated with telework and remote work for the future of their workforces.
Some federal government employees have been trickling back to offices since the spring, and at this point, telework agreements seem to be decided on a case-by-case basis, according to OPM’s 2022 Federal Employee Viewpoint survey published Oct. 20.
Of the roughly 558,000 respondents, the majority — about 46% — reported working onsite at least some of the time, while 36% returned to in-office work completely.
Less than 20% never reported to a physical office.
Of those that were able to work remotely, a quarter said that they teleworked three or more days per week.
The remainder was scattered between having approved remote work agreements (14%), teleworking only one or two days a week (17%), teleworking only a couple days a month (3%) or teleworking infrequently (10%).
One percent did not telework specifically because of technical issues and 4% did not telework by choice.
Telework as a bargaining chip?
Pre-pandemic, almost a third of respondents reported having an approved telework agreement, though what was true before the pandemic may not be true now, and that has caused some employees to consider moving to positions that offer more flexibility.
When asked if employees were considering leaving their agency based on their current telework or remote work schedule, almost three quarters said they had no plans to leave their job.
Of those who did, most responded that they would stay within government but transfer to a new agency or different position within their agency — consistent with recent reports of employees “agency hopping.”
And when asked whether their agency’s return-to-office plan was fair in accounting for employees’ diverse needs and situations, about half agreed, while 28% was indifferent.
According to Gallup, employee engagement for the total U.S. workforce has declined for the past two years by a total of four percentage points, the first time it has dropped in over a decade.
The FEVS government-wide employee engagement index dropped one percentage point from 2020 to 2021, and then stabilized above pre-pandemic levels at 71% in 2022.
The Performance Confidence Index, which measures employees’ view that their team can achieve goals and produce at a high level, remains high at 84%.
How FEVs works
This year, more than a third of federal employees responded to the the FEVs survey.
As is custom, the survey is given as a government-wide census to full-time, part-time, permanent and non-seasonal employees of departments and large agencies, as well as small and independent agencies that accept an invitation to participate.
“Amid unprecedented challenges, federal employees remain remarkably resilient, engaged, and committed to public service,” said Kiran Ahuja, Director of the Office of Personnel Management, in prepared remarks. “Federal employees are finding creative solutions to stay connected to their teams, leverage workplace flexibilities, and remain motivated to continue doing the critical work on behalf of the American people.”
New to the survey this year was a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility Index, which shows 69% of respondents felt positively about agency practices related to DEIA, in addition to a series of questions about telework, post-pandemic reentry, resilience, innovation and customer responsiveness.
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.