It’s Not Up for Debate. Remote and Hybrid Are the Future of Work—Even for Federal Employees
The Biden administration is currently defending an obvious, inexorable reality about the workplace: Remote and hybrid work is here to stay. And yet there are some in Washington, primarily Republicans, trying to block the expansion of telework for federal employees, making unsubstantiated claims that remote federal workers don’t log on to their computers or that remote work contributes to service backlogs, despite evidence that telework actually promotes productivity, as well as offers resilience to crises, contributes to employee welfare, and allows federal agencies to compete with the private sector for talent. It’s true that telework presents unique challenges, particularly in cybersecurity, but that means Congress and the federal government should be thoughtful in its adoption, not obstinate in accessing its benefits just because an opposing party’s administration has made it a priority.
A Democratic Priority That Federal Workers Want
The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and Office of Personnel Management (OPM) of the Biden administration have made it clear that the future of work in federal government includes telework. In a July 2022 memo, OMB Director Shalanda Young directed agencies “to reimagine their workplace approach informed by lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as nationwide workforce and workplace trends (e.g., hybrid work inclusive of onsite work, telework, alternative work schedules, online collaboration, and remote work policies and practices).” Similarly, OPM Director Kiran Ahuja recently stated that telework and workplace flexibility is necessary to recruit and retain top talent in a post-COVID world, and that workplace flexibilities “promote resilience of federal government operations in the face of disruptions, enhance productivity, and improve employee morale.”
But even prior to the pandemic and the current administration, the federal government was shifting to more remote work, with OPM reporting the percentage of eligible employees teleworking increased from 29 percent in 2012 to 51 percent in 2016.
And worker preference is clear. A July 2022 report from Cisco found that 58 percent of government employees are currently working from home five days per week, and the majority are satisfied with this arrangement. Only 7 percent of respondents stated they would prefer to fully return to the office in the future. This isn’t surprising since telework reduces commute time (which also helps reduce costs, worker stress, and environmental impact), offers employees more time with their families, and provides greater flexibility in where employees perform their work.
Yet several Republican policymakers have recently criticized the federal government’s telework policies. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) has “serious questions“ and claims that telework will negatively affect service levels for Americans. Representative Jody Hice (R-GA), ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, stated at a recent hearing that the Biden administration’s efforts to make the federal government a “model employer” by offering greater workplace flexibility like that of the private sector is really just “a catchphrase for treating federal workers like a privileged, protected class.”
This attitude around telework is a continuation of a long-running argument from the political right that federal employees work less, earn too much, or both. For those who view federal workers through this lens, telework is simply an opportunity for lazy bureaucrats to collect their fat government paychecks without even having to show up to an office.
The federal government employs millions of people, and there are no doubt individuals who fall into this “bad apple” category. And, admittedly, civil service rules make it harder to fire federal employees for performance compared to the private sector, but this really has nothing to do with telework. A good employee doesn’t become a bad one simply because they’re working from home. In fact, they’re more appreciative and more likely to stick around.
Productivity Is More Than Where One Works
Republican concerns around telework lowering productivity are overblown and more likely a symptom of organizational distrust, poor management practices, and institutional barriers (like the government’s slow adoption of technology that supports remote work). About half of the over 50,000 Department of Defense employees surveyed in 2021 believe their productivity had increased while teleworking. In the private sector, 83 percent of employers report the shift to remote work has been successful for their company, with more reporting greater increases in productivity overall rather than decreases.
Meeting engagement on virtual platforms presents challenges, but given that organizations expect most meetings to have at least one remote participant, this is more a matter of learning curves and adopting new practices to ensure meetings are inclusive and successful in this unavoidable hybrid environment. Online meeting platforms like Zoom are already evolving to support hybrid work environments, including integrating functionality to remove background noise. Additionally, federal agencies could use cost savings from telework to invest in better home networks or change management activities to improve collaboration and operational outcomes.
We Should Be Talking About Security
The real challenge surrounding telework isn’t worker productivity, but rather security. A growing number of remote workers means a greatly distributed network with a huge number of access points (including “smart,” internet-enabled devices in employees’ homes). Government endpoints are already complicated and widespread because, in addition to millions of computer users, they include operational technology like power plants and building systems.
Fortunately, the federal government is already prioritizing initiatives that work to mitigate these security concerns, such as building out zero trust architecture across federal IT systems. Zero trust is an approach to cybersecurity that aims to eliminate implicit trust and validate every digital interaction, including through the use of multi-factor authentication (MFA) which requires users to present two or more pieces of identifying evidence before accessing a website, device, or application. With so many access points in remote and hybrid environments, MFA is a critical security component in the proliferation of telework in the federal government.
Federal agencies’ ongoing cloud migration efforts are also critical to telework adoption as quality cloud solutions offer greater security than on-premise environments. Accelerating cloud adoption is important given the amount of sensitive data the federal government collects, uses, and stores every day.
But ultimately, cybersecurity is about the user. Nearly 90 percent of cybersecurity breaches arise from human error, and that’s true whether they’re using a desktop computer in a federal office, a laptop at home, or their smartphone at a coffeeshop. Similar to mitigating productivity and organizational deficiencies, training and change management can go a long way in avoiding security-related issues in an environment of remotely distributed users.
Don’t Forget About Talent
Finally, there is still a skills gap in federal government for many critical roles, particularly in IT, and agencies are competing with the private sector for talent. Private companies are further along in telework adoption, offering flexibility regarding when and where to work. And not everyone lives in or wants to live in Washington, D.C. or the numerous other locations federal agencies are based. Offering remote work allows the federal government to access talent from across the country and beyond.
Regarding this push for federal telework, Representative Hice asked, “Why would we make something permanent that we haven’t even checked into for its effectiveness?” There’s nothing wrong with monitoring performance in federal employees—most taxpayers expect it—but her and other naysayers in Washington should look at the existing evidence. Telework improves employee morale, supports resiliency and adaptability in service delivery, contributes to (or at least doesn’t negatively impact) productivity, and helps recruit and retain critical talent. The federal government can’t afford to debate the merits of remote work when it needs to incorporate telework considerations into major, ongoing IT modernization initiatives, such as building out zero trust and expanding its customer-facing digital services. It’s not the time to be obtuse in federal IT.