The COVID-19 pandemic forced many federal offices to embrace remote workforces, even those that had been reluctant toward or wholly opposed to such programs prior. And while the pandemic has caused many agency leaders to see the benefits of allowing remote work, not all feds may have the future ability to work from home in the way they have during the national health crisis.

Just months prior to the COVID-19 pandemic’s arrival in the U.S. and subsequent push to keep as many federal employees working from home as possible, the Social Security Administration had, for example, decided to do away with a longstanding telework program.

The decision, which required previously teleworking employees at the agency’s Operations Office to rapidly return to full-time in-person work, was intended to address the “service crisis” agency officials said was increasing wait times and making services harder to access for some retirees.

The pandemic forced the agency back into expansive telework, with Assistant Deputy Commissioner and Deputy Chief Information Officer for IT Operations Jim Borland noting at a Nov. 18 hearing that over 90 percent of agency employees are able to telework.

“Prior to the pandemic, we did reevaluate our telework program to focus on accountability and to make sure that we could address our public service challenges,” said Borland.

“Because we did not have historically adequate metrics and … adequate program evaluation, each subcomponent of the agency determined telework eligibility based on public service needs, the availability of portable work and the ability to ensure accountability.”

Michelle Rosenberg, acting director of the strategic issues team at the Government Accountability Office, noted that agencies should have robust plans for monitoring and assessing telework programs, as well as training for management to understand how to supervise employees that are working remotely.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., noted that it was important to “dispel the myth” that remote workers are inherently less productive because they are not being physically observed.

Some managers are finding that their employees are even more productive working from home than they were in the office, with Keith Washington, deputy assistant secretary for administration at the Department of Transportation, noting that around 55 percent of his agency’s managers have seen such an improvement in their work units.

But the pandemic has also forced agencies like SSA to grapple with what is and isn’t portable, from a logistical and security standpoint.

“Our goal is to serve the public at least as well as we serve them in person, and right now that’s not possible because not all of our work is portable. For example, we need employees onsite to handle certain sensitive workloads, required face-to-face interviews and to open mail and scan mailed documents into our systems to that teleworking employees can process them,” said Borland.

“At SSA, telework is not one-size-fits-all. Some work does not inherently lend itself to telework. In non-emergency times, different jobs may warrant different amounts of telework, or in some cases no telework at all.”

Even so, the agency has found that certain work deemed “non-portable” may actually be telework compatible with new technological workarounds, such as using data verification and live video to authenticate certain ID’s.

“Our non-portable work is non-portable because there’s not technology or we haven’t laid in technology to support that. It’s really one of the lessons learned in trying to serve the public remotely,” said Borland.

“The technology is there but we, until the pandemic, weren’t looking at it. We are looking at it now very, very seriously.”

Witnesses at the hearing noted that having comprehensive telework programs in place during normal times is crucial for responding to events like the COVID-19 pandemic, so that the infrastructure is in place to support a rapid transition if necessary.

Retaining robust telework after the pandemic also poses the opportunity to expand federal hiring opportunities to employees that are physically distant from federal offices, which would save money on both locality costs and office space.

Sydney Rose, chief human capital officer at the Department of Labor, said that focusing on remote hires can also keep agencies from poaching one another’s employees, as demand for certain positions in the Washington, D.C., area is incredibly high.

Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.

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