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Federal telework may be poised to take off

The post-pandemic future of federal telework will be up to President Biden's administration, but employee interest in it is high and job satisfaction is up.

At a U.S. Senate hearing Thursday, Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) wanted to know about the future of federal telework in the U.S. Social Security Administration. But his question came with a twist. He believed full-time telework could provide stable employment for military spouses who often have to relocate every two or three years.

"As we look forward in the future," Lankford said at a Senate Finance Committee hearing, are there opportunities to "hiring Social Security employees that may never come into the office, that could work in more remote areas a long way from the office but could still fulfill those job opportunities?"

Testifying was Grace Kim, deputy commissioner for operations at the Social Security Administration. Concerning Lankford's question about military spouses, she said the agency is "open to considering it.

"We've learned many lessons during this pandemic, particularly what is truly portable work that could be performed at a location away from the office as if the person is in the office themselves," Kim said.

Federal telework was widely adopted by federal civilian workers due to COVID-19. The just-released annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS), conducted by the Office of Personnel Management, found that the percentage of federal civilian employees who teleworked daily rose from 3% before COVID-19 to 59% due to the pandemic. The government invited 1.4 million civilian workers -- including those who work physical security and intelligence jobs that aren't conducive to telework -- to complete the survey, and 624,000 responded, a 44% response rate.

The pandemic has, in a dramatic way, demonstrated the possibilities for the future.
Max StierPresident and CEO, Partnership for Public Service

"The pandemic has, in a dramatic way, demonstrated the possibilities for the future," said Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service. The nonprofit, nonpartisan group works with government officials to improve workforce management.

But it's still not clear what direction President Biden's administration will take on federal telework, Stier said.

"I think there's a profound opportunity to create a future of work in the government that provides better service to the American people and better experience for federal employees at a lower cost," Stier said.

Hybrid model gains adoption

Although only a tiny percentage of federal workers teleworked before the pandemic, larger numbers of workers used a hybrid model, according to data from the FEVS. For instance, 5% of respondents teleworked three to four days a week before the pandemic, while 15% teleworked one to two days per week.

Employee satisfaction also increased during the pandemic, with an overall employee engagement score of 72 out of 100, the highest score in the last five years. 

The National Treasury Employees Union also surveyed telework attitudes, gathering data from nearly 14,000 federal employees. This month, the union reported that 92% of the respondents considered telework successful, and 66% reported increased productivity.

"The vast majority of federal employees -- 94% -- said they would like the option of teleworking additional days even after the pandemic subsides," said the union in a statement.

Many private-sector firms that are increasing telework post-pandemic said it will help them with recruiting, something the federal government needs to consider as well, Stier said.

Just over 6% of the federal workforce is under the age of 30, and "that's a big problem," Stier said. One way to attract younger workers will be to provide flexibility, he said.

Telework and office relocations

There are other questions about how federal telework might affect the workforce, such as with federal office relocations.

In 2019, the Trump administration relocated the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) headquarters from Washington, D.C. to Grand Junction, Colo. It was reported that approximately 87% of about 290 D.C.-based workers quit.

The Dept. of Interior was asked by SearchHRSoftware whether telework might be used to bring some of those workers back. The agency didn't comment on that, but said it is looking at the impact of the relocation.

"The Interior Department's new leadership is working with BLM career staff to understand the ramifications of the headquarters' move and determine if any adjustments need to be made," the spokesperson said. "We are committed to engaging with a number of stakeholders through this process, including tribes and members of Congress. BLM's important mission and the communities served by the agency deserve a deliberate and thoughtful process."

Patrick Thibodeau covers HCM and ERP technologies. He's worked for more than two decades as an enterprise IT reporter.

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