Biden administration rolls back telework as Australia tables flexible work principles

By on 19/04/2023 | Updated on 19/04/2023
A remote work desk

The Biden administration announced measures to reduce teleworking at federal agencies on 13 April, exactly a year after agencies began implementing their return-to-office plans.

A memo sent to agency heads by Office of Management and Budget director Shalanda Young noted that workforces would “generally [be] expected to increase meaningful in-person work… while still using flexible operational policies as an important tool in talent recruitment and retention”.

The OMB’s guidance urged agencies to monitor their “organisational health and organisational performance” as part of the move.

In a White House blog, Jason Miller, OMB’s deputy director for management, said that talent acquisition and retention were to remain key considerations in agencies’ assessments given the work flexibility offered by private sector employers. He added that agency headquarters had a responsibility to carefully judge “what is working well, what is not, and what can be improved”.

Read more: ‘Work is an activity, not a place’: how governments are responding to the hybrid working era

“Workplace flexibilities will continue to be an important tool for ensuring agencies are able to retain and compete for top talent in the marketplace. Because the federal government is a vast organisation, there is no one-size-fits-all approach; however, it is important to establish overarching goals and benchmarks for consistency,” he said.

Young’s memo noted that agencies should take a “holistic” approach to tracking the impact of the changes and “rapidly make adjustments” if they prove detrimental to organisational performance.

Unions respond

Everett Kelley, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, welcomed OMB’s memo for recognising the positive role telework had played at federal agencies, though said changes would need to be negotiated between agency heads and unions.

“The voices and concerns of the employees directly affected deserve to be heard through the collective bargaining process,” he said.

Read more: Biden’s management agenda prioritises federal employee engagement

Matt Briggs, president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers said that unions had not been given an opportunity to weigh in on the policy before it was announced, and that the decision undermined the president’s agenda published in November 2021, which set out to reverse the Trump administration’s moves to curb unions’ influence.

“This is a pro-labour president, but for OMB to unilaterally move forward and put this together in what appears to be a hasty manner without even so much as a heads up, much less the involvement of labour, is extremely disappointing,” Biggs said.

On 10 April, shortly before the latest telework announcement, US president Joe Biden signed a Republican-backed resolution to end the country’s COVID-19 national emergency, which was enacted in 2020 under former president Donald Trump.

When the current administration took office in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic in January 2021, it demanded that federal agencies make “every effort” to maximise telework and imposed mandatory mask-wearing as well as a maximum limit of 25% office occupancy. During this time, several federal agencies reported increased productivity, and high employee engagement scores were recorded in the federal government’s annual employee survey.

Read more: Canadian government readies return-to-office mandate in effort to codify hybrid work model

Australian federal government firms up flexible working

Meanwhile, the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) published a set of flexible working principles on 13 April, amid APS-wide workplace negotiations.

A paper by the Australian Public Service Secretaries Board entitled ‘Principles of flexible work in the APS‘ set out five principles for flexible working designed to make APS “a model employer [and] to redefine the future of work” in public service. The principles include:

  1. Flexibility that applies to all roles, with different types of flexibility being suitable for different roles that include when and where an employee works.
  2. Flexibility that is mutually beneficial. Arrangements should be reviewed regularly to ensure they remain mutually beneficial for all.
  3. Conversations about individual flexibility arrangements framed by the organisational and team needs. Managers and agencies “should be transparent about flexible work decisions, and ensure the reasons are clearly communicated and understood”.
  4. Flexible work arrangements that value meaningful and regular face-to-face contact.
  5. Flexibility that is embedded, modelled and refined, providing support to all staff to “have open and honest conversations about working flexibly, managing performance and supporting career development”.

The move to flexible working by default is expected to form a central demand of the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) during negotiations.

The secretaries board said the five principles would be considered in negotiations as part of an effort to reach “a common flexibility term for inclusion in all APS enterprise agreements”.

Earlier this month, the APSC said it would cautiously consider implementing a four-day work week, which the CPSU’s secretary Melissa Donnelly described as a “central issue” for staff.

“Securing working-from-home rights is a key outcome employees want to see in this bargaining round,” she said.

“The four-day work week, and exploring how that may work in the APS, is another area of interest to employees. Like in other jurisdictions, a pilot or trial may be the best way to examine how the four-day work week could operate in practice.”

Read more: ‘The war for talent’: APS warns of challenges in attracting staff

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About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

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