As the coronavirus pandemic hits the nine-month mark in December – and infection rates soar across the United States – telework remains mostly in place for most of the Federal government workforce whose jobs can be done offsite.

The biggest unanswered question is whether and how telework practices and policies will change in 2021, especially in the latter half of next year when it is hoped and expected that COVID-19 vaccines will become widely available to the general population.

Two legislative efforts in Congress – which at the moment seem to be on hold amid end-of-year legislative pushes to fund the government beyond the Dec. 11 expiration of the continuing budget resolution, and to craft another COVID-19 relief/economic stimulus bill – may have a lot to do with charting the Federal workforce’s future telework profile.

With the usual and sensible caveats in place for trying to predict what Congress may end up doing, it’s worth keeping an eye on two legislative lines of efforts.

Current Law  

Putting current legislation aside, the law of the land for Federal telework rules remains the 2010 Telework Enhancement Act. In a nutshell, the law requires executive branch agencies to establish policies under which eligible employees are authorized to telework.

The law provides a statutory definition for telework, and outlines expectations for policy guidance and reporting of telework. It also requires executive branch agencies to incorporate telework into their continuity of operations (COOP) plans, to conduct telework training, and to designate Telework Managing Officers.

The law further designates a number of Federal agencies to provide guidance and support to implement the law, including the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), General Services Administration (GSA), Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

In a March 2020 report to Congress on government’s progress in implementing the law, OPM said that as of Fiscal Year 2018, about 42 percent of Federal employees were eligible to telework, and that participation in telework stood at about 22 percent of all Federal employees – equaling nearly half of the Feds declared eligible for telework.

Getting Back to the Office

With the pandemic declaration in March, Federal agencies blew past their previous telework percentages, with many reporting subsequent telework rates above 80 percent of the workforce, and some higher than 90 percent. While agency telework figures have fluctuated throughout the year depending on virus spread and other factors, most still have the majority of workforces operating remotely.

One piece of legislation currently in play aims to put in place rules to impact how soon and under what conditions Feds may return to their traditional office settings.

The Chai Suthammanont Remembrance Act (HR 7340) would require Federal agencies to develop and disclose their office reopening plans during public health emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

The law would require agencies to publicly report those plans at 30 days before a proposed reopening, detail what kind of protective measures would be in place for returning employees, and provide details about potential measures to reverse reopening plans that still ensure continuity of operations.

The bill, sponsored in the House by Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., was approved by voice vote in the House on Sept. 30. Companion legislation in the Senate sponsored by Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., remains stuck in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Both legislators represent areas dense with Federal workers, and have reputations as fierce defenders of Federal worker interests, so the thrust of this bill is not likely is not likely to go away even into the next Congress that begins in January 2021.

Beyond the Pandemic

A separate legislative effort in the Senate – the Pandemic Federal Telework Act (S 4518) – on its face aims to cement in place expanded Federal telework for eligible employees for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. It also tasks OPM and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) with developing telework policy for use in the event of future outbreaks of infectious diseases.

But based on comments from the bill’s sponsors at a hearing last month, they are looking at the benefits of expanded Federal teleworking far beyond the current pandemic.

At a Nov. 18 hearing of the committee’s Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management subcommittee, Chairman James Lankford, R-Okla., and ranking member Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., both indicated that one of the allures of post-pandemic expanded telework is to allow Federal agencies to hire remote-work employees from all over the country.

Key to the senators’ thinking about expanding post-pandemic telework is the ability of technology to support remote employees, cybersecurity sufficient to combat the expanded attack surfaces that telework creates, the ability of agency managers to adequately supervise remote employees, and accumulating anecdotal evidence that Federal agency productivity has stayed steady or even increased during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We want to create a more efficient, competitive, and flexible Federal workforce,” Sen. Lankford said, but added, “I want to make sure that cybersecurity and IT improvements are at the forefront of future telework conversations.”

Citing persistent pandemic health risks, Sen. Sinema warned against returning Federal workers to their offices too soon. She said her own Senate office has seen “no disruption in our work” since going to remote work in March. “We found it can increase productivity and improve morale.”

Broadening Talent Pools

Sen. Lankford said the Federal government’s experience with pandemic-era telework begs the question “can we telework all the time?”

More specifically, he asked why a Federal agency could not hire someone from his home state of Oklahoma to fill a job that formerly had to be performed in D.C. He also said that more remote work would open up Federal government positions for military spouses who often move around the country and the world on short notice.

“What would prohibit you in regulation or in law, or practically, from hiring people that you never plan to meet [in person], or meet once per year,” he asked Keith Washington, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Administration at the Department of Transportation (DoT).

Washington replied he was not aware of any obstacle in regulation or law to making those kinds of hires, and added that the government could end up saving money in some cases if remote workers came from areas allowing for lower locality pay. He said he hoped that agency managers would be receptive to more remote workers, adding, “I think it’s more of a culture change.”

“I am thinking the same thing,” Sen. Lankford said. “Oklahoma has a much lower cost of living than northern Virginia … there is a cost savings there, and a ready workforce” for agencies to recruit from, he said.

Sidney Rose, Chief Human Capital Officer at the Department of Labor (DoL), indicated that her agency was already moving in a similar direction. She said that DoL now advertises more jobs nationwide, rather than tied to particular work locations. “It could work, and it does work … I have an applicant pool that is the entire [United States] not just the D.C. metro area,” Rose said.

“We have found that employees outside the D.C. areas stay longer” in government service, Rose continued. “Employment in Washington tends to be a revolving door, and we just steak people from each other, it goes around and around,” she said.

Michelle Rosenberg, Acting Director of the Strategic Issues team at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), agreed that more agency hiring outside of the D.C. area could yield cost savings to the government based on lower salary requirements in some locales, along with potential savings on government office space in the D.C. area. She added that telework caused by the pandemic has allowed GAO to cut its regional office footprint and space used in its D.C. headquarters building.

Washington said DoT is continuing to assess its remote work policy going forward, and said one driver of that consideration is the ability to recruit more widely outside of the Washington, D.C. area. Recruiting from the D.C. area “has been a challenge … so if we broaden the application pool nationwide, we can recruit better,” he said. “We are continuing to assess that … we are trying to make that business case before going through with our policy.”

“We are going to keep working on this, it is a paradigm shift,” Sen. Lankford said, adding that a greater embrace of telework in the post-pandemic era can open “up a much greater talent pool” for the Federal government. “We have started conversations about legislation that might be needed,” the senator said.

Agency Views on Tech, Productivity

Jim Borland, Assistant Deputy Commissioner for Systems at the Social Security Administration (SSA), told the subcommittee that prior to the pandemic the agency was re-evaluating telework to focus on accountability issues. But since then it has been looking into other ways to use technology to support telework, including for such tasks as document verification using a combination of data exchange and video technology.

“The technology exists, but before the pandemic, we were not looking at it,” Borland said. “But now we are looking at it very seriously.”

Washington said DoT believes employee productivity has increased with more telework, based in part on surveys of agency managers and DoT’s success in distributing CARES Act funding.

GAO’s Rosenberg said her organization is studying the impact of pandemic-era telework, and may have a report out in the summer of 2021 on the subject. In advance of that, she told the subcommittee that Federal agencies need to overcome distrust of telework by making sure that in-office and remote employees are treated the same by management.

“Telework requires a different way of managing staff,” she said, because in-office employee management can draw on personal observation, while management of remote employees relies more on results.

DoL’s Rose said a just-completed evaluation of employee performance found “no appreciable decrease” in performance. “The training and performance that we hold employees to seems to be working,” Rose said, adding that agency managers tell her they are “amazed and delighted” that telework is producing good results for most employees.

Asked about agency plans to move employees back to the office, Rose replied, “we have worked very long and hard … on our reopening plans,” and “will take a phased approach” to that based on state and local guidelines. “We will continue to do telework with an onsite presence,” Rose said, without specifying percentages.

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John Curran
John Curran
John Curran is MeriTalk's Managing Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.