But the coronavirus crisis — and a new president eager to rebuild the trust of federal workers who had been attacked by former president Donald Trump as “the swamp” — has convinced the country’s largest employer that in many departments, employees can serve the public just as well from home, officials said.
Notice of the change is expected in June, when the administration is set to release long-awaited guidance to agencies about when and how many federal employees can return to the office — likely in hybrid workplaces that combine in-person and at-home options, according to officials and memos obtained by The Washington Post. The bulletin is expected to address remote work policies in the immediate and long term.
“We anticipate this guidance will leave room for decision-making at departments and agencies, to provide maximum flexibility for defining work requirements to meet mission and workforce needs,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because plans have not yet been finalized.
Some agencies have already made it clear they intend to give both current staff and new hires the option to continue to work away from the office.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced at his first town hall with employees in March that the department will allow telework as much as four days a week, expanded use of virtual and remote duty stations and more flexible schedules in its post-pandemic workplace. The department had been the first under Trump to slash what had been a robust telework program established during President Barack Obama’s second term.
“This will allow us to recruit and retain the absolute best talent, which will make USDA an employer of choice,” spokesman Matt Herrick said. Requests for continued telework are the “number one question employees ask,” he said.
How much other federal employees will be able to work from home will be up to individual agencies and is likely to vary widely depending on employee needs, manager preferences and the department’s mission, officials said. Many jobs — such as screening air travelers, building sorties for bombers and serving veterans in hospitals — do not lend themselves to remote work.
Still, a broader endorsement of a work-from-home culture by the Biden administration would have far-reaching implications for the 2.1 million federal employees around the country, as well as the vast federal contracting workforce, which could follow suit.
Like private-sector employees, federal workers had to quickly adjust to makeshift home offices during the public health crisis. Agencies scrambled to get equipment to staff members who had never worked outside the office — including, for example, customer service agents at the Internal Revenue Service and Social Security Administration, and employees who process benefit claims at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The share of the workforce teleworking every day rose from 3 percent before the pandemic to 59 percent at its peak last year, according to a recently released survey of federal workers.
The move proved highly popular. Employees gave the flexibility high marks in the workforce survey, and many managers concluded that productivity didn’t suffer.
“I’m old school, and I’m still prejudiced against it, but I’ve evolved,” said Ann Stefanek, who supervises a team of 14 public affairs officers at the Pentagon for the Air Force. “I have some really good people who have busted their butts in the pandemic. If they tell me they need to work from home one day a week, I should listen to that.”
Facing competition for new talent from private companies that are collapsing bricks-and-mortar operations in favor of virtual offices, the Biden administration is encouraging agencies to imagine their post-pandemic workplaces and who will occupy them.
Managers are surveying their employees for their preferences. Among the possibilities: Opening job vacancies to applicants living anywhere in the country, who might work and even manage staffs thousands of miles away from their home offices in Washington.
“Collectively, the federal government has an opportunity for a ‘leap frog’ moment to shape the future of work,” Susan Gough, a spokeswoman for the Defense Department, the largest federal agency, said in an email.
Before the pandemic, about 11 percent of civilian and active-duty Pentagon employees did some of their jobs from home, a share that rose to 75 percent at one point last year, Gough said.
“The cultural barriers to telework have essentially collapsed [with the pandemic],” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D), whose Northern Virginia district includes tens of thousands of federal employees and contractors. “The younger generation demands it.”
Still, a permanent shift away from the office or to a long-distance location poses some singular challenges for the federal government, experts on the federal workforce say.
The federal real estate footprint, reduced under the Obama and Trump administrations to save money, could continue to shrink. Agencies will also have to wrestle with how to track performance, whether to continue paying premiums for those living in expensive cities and how to be fair to those working in jobs that do not qualify for remote work.
Higher-paid employees in policy, regulatory, research and other roles have traditionally enjoyed more telework privileges than lower-paid ones whose government jobs often require face-to-face interaction. And with the government offering a far more diverse set of occupations than most private companies, a push for a permanent shift could raise sensitive issues.
“It’s going to give some employees a sense that there are haves and have-nots,” said Jeff Neal, a former personnel chief at the Department of Homeland Security and founder of the blog ChiefHRO.com.
“Someone commuting to an aircraft plant will think, ‘You get to sit home in your bunny slippers working at your computer, while I’m stuck in traffic on my commute,’ ” Neal said.
Dave Cann, director of organizing for the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest union representing federal workers, said there is an openness to negotiating conditions such as equipment and supplies, the number of telework days allowed and notice of home visits from managers.
“These are not the things that would be obstacles,” he said. “The union is a willing partner.”
The long-term changes are being contemplated even as federal employees wait to hear what immediately awaits them in the workplace.
The Biden administration in January established a maximum telework policy for federal offices — with the exception of jobs that cannot be done remotely — with no more than 25 percent capacity. The White House does not plan to bring back a full complement of staff until July.
The cautious approach has led to sharp criticism from members of Congress, who say the public still faces indefensible delays to face-to-face service at the IRS, the Social Security Administration and other agencies.
“It is time to begin transitioning to the workplace,” Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.), the top Republican on the House Oversight and Reform subcommittee on government operations, wrote last week to the government’s acting personnel chief.
Pointing to rising vaccination rates, declining covid-19 cases and newly optional mask policies in federal buildings, Hice wrote that “prolonging arrangements taken in an exigent situation is not a permanent solution.” He cited other “serious concerns” about the push for fully remote workplaces that don’t have daily direct contact with the public.
The pressure to see federal employees back in the office underscores the limitations of the rapid shift home forced by the pandemic.
Some federal workers who now work remotely cannot fully perform their duties, some lawmakers have complained — saying their constituents still cannot get through to a live IRS representative on the phone because a limited number of employees are reporting to the office. The volume of calls has exploded and the phone staff is also opening huge piles of mail from taxpayers that accumulated when the agency was closed.
“My offices are open so they can serve our constituents,” said Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), “but my constituents are calling the IRS and they can’t get anyone on the phone in the name of the pandemic.” He has asked the Biden administration to explain why federal offices in states with low transmission rates remain closed.
“Our state agencies are open,” Waltz said. “Our schools are open. We’re asking federal agencies, ‘Serve the folks you’re supposed to serve.’ ”
The White House said that while federal offices are limited to 25 percent occupancy, agencies can be granted exceptions for mission-critical activities.
Mark Hinkle, a Social Security Administration spokesman, said in an email that the agency is “carefully and incrementally increasing the number of employees working in our local field offices” to help whittle down workloads and is beginning to increase in-office appointments.
There’s also bipartisan concern about thin in-person staffing levels at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, an arm of the National Archives that provides veterans with vital paper records they need to obtain benefits, access to health care and burials at veterans cemeteries.
Pandemic staff absences have created a backlog of close to half a million service requests that must be processed by hand.
“This staff should be pushed to the front of the line [for vaccinations] and sent back to work,” said Rep. Mike Bost (Ill.), the top Republican on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, who is part of a bipartisan group of lawmakers pressing the National Archives for answers. “What is the hold up?”
John Valceanu, a National Archives spokesman, said the records center is following federal guidelines on in-person work and has already recalled more than half its staff to the office.
The center is processing more than 10,000 requests a week from the public and another 7,000 from VA and other agencies within two or three work days, he said.
Despite the challenges, a broad rethinking of the federal workplace to include remote and virtual options brings big positives, economists and personnel experts say, by appealing to younger workers in particular and helping employers expand their talent pool.
“Telework leads to better hiring, because there are positions that are tied to geography unnecessarily,” said Chad Hooper, national president of the Professional Managers Association, which represents thousands of IRS managers and advises the agency on operations and policy.
“There are support and operations roles that don’t impact the public,” Hooper said. “We want the best candidates to fill those roles.”
Other proponents say a more distributed workforce outside Washington could satisfy skeptical conservatives, many of whom supported the move of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management and two economic research offices at the Agriculture Department out of Washington in the Trump administration.
“It means your job no longer has to be in D.C.,” said Adam Ozimek, chief economist at Upwork, an online site for hiring freelancers and a leading voice on remote work. “Spreading people out will make federal employees accessible to everyone.”