Learn the lessons of COVID-19 remote working, says OPM as it publishes fresh guidance on telework

By on 21/11/2021 | Updated on 21/11/2021
OPM’s director Kiran Ahuja.

The US Office of Personnel Management has published updated guidance on telework, which encourages federal government agencies to make the shift to remote working in the pandemic a permanent feature of workforce policy.

In a memo to agency heads announcing its publication on Friday last week, OPM’s director Kiran Ahuja said the COVID-19 pandemic has shown federal employees’ willingness and ability to fulfil their duties effectively from locations outside the office.

“Agencies now have an opportunity to revisit how they were operating prior to the pandemic and leverage lessons learned to integrate telework and remote work into their strategic workforce plans,” she said.

The document, which updates a previous document published in 2011, distinguishes between what it calls “routine” telework arrangements, understood as regular telework built into an employee’s schedule, and “situational” telework approved by a supervisor on a case-by-case basis “as the need arises”. The latter includes cases where an employee has care duties to fulfil, or where they suffer an injury that requires recovery time at home.

The OPM added however that teleworking “is not an employee right or entitlement”, and that agencies have the discretion to support or deny any request for remote work”. It said meanwhile teleworkers are expected to arrange for dependent care “just as they would if they were working at an agency worksite”.

“It is important to remember that telework is not meant to be a substitute for dependent care. Employees may not telework with the intent of, or for the sole purpose of, meeting their dependent care responsibilities while performing official duties,” it said.

Striking the power balance

While federal agencies have broad authority to determine whether an employee is eligible for remote working, the OMP warned they do not have “unfettered authority or discretion”.

“As a practical matter, the agency’s latitude may be determined by the Telework Enhancement Act, decisions of the Federal Labor Relations Authority interpreting that Act…and governmentwide and agency regulations,” it said.

On the development of telework policy, the OPM stressed the need for agencies to include programme goals and objectives, as well as a “statement of purpose” outlining the benefits telework brings to its organisation and employees. It also stressed the need for agencies to use intelligible definitions of telework and employee eligibility, including clear parameters, procedures, and standards for policies to function effectively.

“Telework agreements should be well-written, jargon-free, practical, clear regarding responsibilities, roles, and expectations, and reflect and be consistent with applicable law and the agency’s telework policy,” its guidance said.

As part of this, agency programmes should clarify expectations around how employees communicate with their supervisors, how their performances are evaluated and recorded, and the terms on which overtime is agreed and compensated. Agencies must also ensure teleworkers “receive the same treatment and opportunities as non-teleworkers”, including career development opportunities and promotions.

The OPM added that any policy must emphasise the teleworker’s responsibility to ensure their work arrangement does not negatively impact other members of a team.

Embedding the trend

In the introduction to its guidance, the OPM said it began tracking remote work in 2013, noting that teleworking had become more frequent across the federal government as more agencies used it to hire and retain talent from geographically dispersed labour markets, cut real estate costs, and maintain operations during emergencies.

It said federal agencies could use its guidance to assess whether remote work arrangements have significant positive impact on its organisational effectiveness. Alternatively, it added, agencies may wish to use it to augment existing policies or reassess the cost implications of telework arrangements.

Codifying workplace flexibilities would, it said, ensure federal agencies stay resilient in the face of future disruptive challenges. The benefits of telework could also serve the mental health needs of employees, as well as attract new talent.

“[Telework] can help federal workers balance work and personal responsibilities… thereby enhancing employee satisfaction and wellbeing, aiding retention, and serving as a draw to potential applicants.” The agency concluded: “When implemented as a strategic management tool, robust and well-practiced remote work programs can improve employee performance and engagement, and maximise organisational mission productivity, efficiency, and government stewardship.”

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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