Federal agencies have a new standard for telework and remote work policies under guidance released by the Office of Personnel Management Nov. 12.

In addition to updating policy last released in 2011, the OPM guidance also features a new section entirely dedicated to remote work, which has been steadily increasing over the past few years.

Under non-emergency circumstances, teleworking employees are expected to return to the office to some degree each pay period, whereas remote employees are not expected to make regular office appearances and may therefore live a significant distance from the agency’s traditional worksite.

According to the fact sheet released on the guidance, the COVID-19 pandemic and maximum telework posture that agencies took in response to that pandemic present an opportunity “to revisit how they were operating prior to the pandemic and leverage lessons learned to integrate telework and remote work.”

“The COVID-19 pandemic underscores how vital telework is for any workforce to continue mission-critical services and adapt to a changing labor market. As the largest employer in the nation, the federal government has an opportunity to lead by example on this,” OPM Director Kiran Ahuja said in a statement.

“We are providing a model that will benefit both public and private sector employers to follow, while positioning the government for success now and in the future.”

According to the guidance, offering remote work can enable agencies to recruit and retain employees who cannot live close to the official agency worksite or who face disabilities that make going into an official worksite especially challenging.

“Remote work arrangements can help organizations recruit new employees with hard-to-find skillsets or help agencies retain current employees who move due to spouse relocation, dependent care, upcoming retirement, or other life events,” the guidance states.

“However, these types of flexible work arrangements require a little more intentionality, thought, and planning because they raise various logistical and policy issues, including reassignment of official worksite, pay, and reimbursement for travel, etc., which to date have created certain disincentives for agencies to approve them in all but limited or very rare instances.”

Agencies can save money on locality pay, transportation reimbursements and office space, but also have to ensure performance measures and communication policies are structured to work for remote workers.

More comprehensive remote work and telework programs also require agencies to ensure an employee’s remote worksite is secure, reliable and safe.

OPM encourages agencies to rethink their policies that bar teleworking employees from having a dependent family member — such as a child or an elderly family member — in the home while they are teleworking.

“Although the presence of dependents in the household need not be an absolute bar to teleworking, employees should not be engaging in dependent care activities when performing official duties,” the guidance states.

“Instead, the employee should take leave, or, if the agency has adopted a maxi flex schedule ... and the supervisor is willing, reach an understanding as to how the employee will complete a full workday while attending to dependent care responsibilities.”

Employees on a maxi flex schedule may work different hours than the standard daily expectations for their job, and instead fulfill the 80 hours of full-time work per pay period requirement by varying the hours worked across different days of the week.

Teleworking or remote working feds may also have nannies or elder care workers in the home to provide dependent care during work hours.

The guidance suggests agencies relax dependent care limitations during emergency telework periods, such as by allowing an employee to proactively account for the hours they are actively working, versus tending to dependents in their household.

Agencies also have access to sample telework agreements and supervisor checklists through the guidance to facilitate easier telework arrangements.

The Biden administration has consistently advocated for expanding and supporting telework opportunities during normal operations, and the General Services Administration has begun assessing agency building use under the expectation fewer employees will be in the office on a daily basis than before the pandemic.

Jessie Bur covers the federal workforce and the changes most likely to impact government employees.

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