May 18 2023

OMB Outlines Process for Federal Workers to Begin Returning to the Office

Agencies must have plans ready for review by summer’s end.

After more than three years, the federal government is asking agencies to bring employees back to the office — but is still allowing the option of telework when it improves an agency’s operational health.

The public health emergency was declared on Jan. 31, 2020 — about two months before COVID-19 was designated a worldwide pandemic and workers across the United States turned their homes into offices — and it ended May 11. “Open with maximum telework flexibilities” is no longer a part of the government’s daily operational status.

Before the pandemic, only 7 percent of federal employees used telework three or more days per week, according to the 2019 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. The 2022 FEVS shows that 25 percent now telework that often.

However, writes Jason Miller, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, in a White House blog post, “COVID-19 no longer dictates how federal agencies work and serve the public.”

But, he adds, “just as you should regularly go to the doctor to stay on top of your health, it’s important that the federal government as an organization regularly check in on its organizational health and performance.”

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Agencies Must Continue to Adapt to Changing Work Environments

A White House memorandum issued April 13 instructs agencies to create new plans for their “work environments” that establish standards to measure organizational efficiency and health (including the agency’s resiliency, capability and capacity to achieve its mission).

According to the memorandum, “It is the expectation that as a part of these assessments agencies will continue to substantially increase meaningful in-person work at federal offices, particularly at headquarters and equivalents, while still using flexible operational policies as an important tool in talent recruitment and retention.”

After the initial shock of the nearly overnight transition to full telework, agencies adapted by adding technologies or upgrading existing ones at lightning speed.

“I had less than 10 laptops in inventory,” Jack Gumtow, then the CIO of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told FedTech in 2020. “Within one or two days, we were putting in a virtual private network.”

LOOK BACK: Find out how seven agencies adapted to telework during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Telework Brought Financial and Personal Benefits

Since then, agencies have seen substantial savings in transit and commuting costs, as well as reduced employee absences, according to the Fiscal Year 2021 Status of Telework in the Federal Government Report to Congress, released in December 2022.

The Appraisal Subcommittee of the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council, for instance, “no longer needs to rent office space for employees. Our costs are primarily for storage space, mailbox rental and office space on an as-needed basis, [and] are approximately 95 percent lower than what we paid for office space,” according to a statement from the subcommittee in the report.

Agencies also reported that they have been better able to retain workers and recruit new ones with the more flexible telework policies. According to the report: “In the case of fiscal year 2021, agencies proved that the use of telework is critical in not only maintaining operations during exigent circumstances, but also in attracting, developing, and maintaining a highly qualified workforce.”

This summer, agencies will be expected to present the results of their workplace reviews to the Office of Management and Budget, and will also outline the effect of telework on their missions. Any changes to telework policies will stem from these reports.

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