Agencies have been given the green light to begin lifting their emergency telework plans established under the COVID-19 pandemic, but the Office of Personnel Management encouraged agencies in a July 23 memo to consider all the options associated with telework and remote work for the future of their workforces.

“In light of the steps agencies undertook at the outset of the pandemic, OPM expects that many more federal employees will be eligible to telework on a regular basis post-reentry. Agencies should start re-assessing schedules for and frequency of telework, based upon the experiences of the last 15 months, and re-establish them in a way that best meets mission needs (including the agency’s ability to compete for qualified candidates and retain talent),” the memo stated.

“Supervisors may see mission delivery, productivity or employee engagement benefits in extending flexibilities related to telework and alternative work schedules. An employee may wish to return to their pre-pandemic schedule, operate under a new schedule, or telework only situationally. Agencies should work through these decisions in accordance with agency policies looking not only at the primary functions of the job, but also at other responsibilities that may be amenable to being performed during occasional or regularly scheduled telework days. Agencies may wish to take this opportunity to adjust their telework policies to reflect a new understanding about how telework has worked at their agencies.”

Importantly, the memo advises agencies to make telework eligibility determinations based on job function, rather than managerial preference, so that employees who perform similar job functions are treated the same.

“When possible, consider restructuring jobs so that all employees, theoretically, could be eligible for at least situational or occasional telework,” the memo stated.

The memo also made a significant distinction between telework and remote work designations. Though many employees working from home full time during the pandemic may have been classified as working under “maximum telework,” normal work classifications require a teleworking employee to report to their government worksite for at least two days out of a two-week pay period. An employee that is not expected to report to the worksite with that degree of regularity is considered to be under a remote work plan.

Those distinctions are important for the process under which employees may be approved for one or the other. If an employee is deemed telework-eligible — usually by virtue of job duties and the portability of such work — the employee then can work with management to either set a routine telework schedule or request situational telework when an occasional need for such a flexibility arises.

But the authority for granting remote work technically rests with the agency head, though that leader can set down an established process for requesting and granting such work. Remote work flexibilities may be approved as part of a job listing or requested by an existing employee.

OPM encouraged agencies to consider the costs and savings associated with remote workers that live outside the local commuting area, such as differences in locality pay, savings on office space and the potential costs of occasionally transporting the employee to the government worksite.

Expanded remote work may also give agencies the opportunity to recruit diverse or hard-to-find talent that may not wish to relocate close to the agency’s office.

Employees that live within the local commuting area of an agency may still be approved for remote work.

OPM also made the distinction that the approval or revocation of telework should not be used as a performance-management tool, and revoking the telework approval of a poor-performing employee should be based on whether the teleworking itself contributed to the subpar performance.

“There should be no significant difference between managing the performance of an employee who is teleworking or working remotely and of an employee who works in the office,” the memo stated.

The pandemic’s alteration of family circumstances also prompted OPM to encourage agencies to reconsider how their available flexibilities may assist such employees:

“An agency that has a general bar on teleworking when there are young children or other persons requiring care and supervision by the employee in the home should reevaluate that policy in light of its experience during the pandemic. In many instances, these policies assume a rigid adherence to specific work hours. Agencies may want to consider offering teleworking employees with dependent care responsibilities a maxiflex work schedule, which is a type of flexible work schedule that, when combined with telework, provides the most flexibility to employees who need to address the dual demands of work and caregiving, as well as other personal responsibilities,” the memo read.

Several federal agencies and employee unions have reported equal or improved productivity as well as increased job satisfaction under a maximum telework plan. This OPM guidance could set the stage for a far more expansive telework posture in the federal government than existed before the pandemic.

Increasingly, remote jobs in the private sector, which the McKinsey Global institute found in February would be regularly possible for 20-25 percent of jobs, may also require agencies to provide more remote work options in order to compete for talent.

Jobs that cannot be performed remotely or that struggled to meet citizen needs and agency mission during the pandemic are less likely to experience such changes.

Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.

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