Since President Joe Biden promised in his State of the Union address that federal workers will return to working in their offices, the workforce with more than 2 million members has been waiting for the other shoe to drop.
It did last week, when the White House’s Office of Management issued guidance for agencies to “substantially increase meaningful in-person work at Federal offices, particularly at headquarters and equivalents.”
While federal employees balked and unions cautioned against hardening mandates to return to work, others say it’s “a long-overdue step that will hopefully help restore public transparency, a more efficient functioning of government and the vibrancy of downtown Washington,” according to an editorial by The Washington Post on April 18.
Agencies at this point in the “endemic” have set their own rules for reentry depending on what works for the team or what managers expect. The White House direct agencies to report their current policies for telework and monitor progress.
“Stroll through downtown these days, and the city’s grand avenues and stately facades seem attached to a ghost town, a shell of the lively center the area was before the pandemic,” the Post’s editorial board wrote. “For-lease signs abound; glass towers sit empty. That’s largely because many federal employees are still working from home, and they account for about one-quarter of jobs downtown.”
Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser, too, has urged President Biden to bring federal workers back to downtown or else give the government’s property to other entities who can promise revitalization.
Though federal workers have said won’t have their work-life balance be politicized, the Post said this issue is about more than partisanship.
“Despite the claims of traditional managers who insist on a full return to five days in the office, the truth is that U.S. productivity actually spiked in the second half of 2020 while most offices were shut,” the editorial says. “And it fell sharply in the first quarters of 2022, when most companies began mandating a return to the office. A full return to the office has also been linked to the phenomenon of “quiet quitting,” so federal agencies, like other workplaces, aren’t wrong to try and retain workers as best they can — even if it remains unclear how agencies measure productivity among remote workers.”
The solution is compromise, it continues, through a hybrid mix of work where and when it makes sense.
“It is undeniably critical that agencies take a data driven and balanced approach to telework and flexible work policies,” said Marcus Hill, chair of the Senior Executives Association representing 8,000 career federal executives, in a statement. “The [OMB] memo appropriately prioritizes organizational health and performance and encourages the government to use evidence to guide decision-making in this area.”
The National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys advocated for a universal baseline to ensure the policy is being applied evenly.
“While some U.S. Attorney Offices allow significant telework flexibility, others offer little to none,” said Steven Wasserman, president of NAAUSA, in a statement. “The patchwork of telework flexibility policies results in dramatically different and sometimes arbitrary access to an important work life benefit — this is despite overall work duties being comparable across offices and 95% of AUSAs surveyed reporting they were successfully able to do their job remotely during COVID-19.”
Unions that collectively represent the interests of 1.2 million non-postal employees say they’re concerned about this guidance being misinterpreted to justify cutting back flexibilities altogether, though they agree that not every role is suitable for telework.
The largest federal union, the American Federation of Government Employees said “the voices and concerns of the employees directly affected deserve to be heard” as this guidance manifests in agencies.
“Customer service and mission-delivery challenges, real or perceived, are not the result of maximum telework, but are the direct result of staffing shortages and insufficient funding by Congress,” said Randy Erwin, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, in a statement.
Erwin said that employees who have a union and collective bargaining agreement are more likely to keep whatever telework and remote work arrangements they have than those who are not unionized.
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.