US gov’t plans for remote workers could spur private-sector push, too

The US government is apparently set endorse remote working for its 2 million workers, even after the pandemic subsides and offices reopen, according to The Washington Post — a move that could encourage permanent adoption of “work from anywhere” policies across the public sector.

As at most organizations, government agencies were forced to move quickly in 2020 to support remote work at unprecedented levels when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. With plans now under way across a variety of industries for a reopening of offices over the next few months, the Biden administration is set to release guidance in June that would allow for a permanent increase in the number of remote staff, The Post reported this week.

The guidance will reportedly allow individual agencies to choose from a variety of hybrid remote-work strategies, with support for both in-office and remote workers. The degree to which employees will be able to work from home is likely to vary, the Post said; not all job roles are suited to remote work, and agencies may be able to decide based on factors such as employee need, manager preference and the department’s priorities.

Many of those same variables are at play around the world as companies try to decide how best to resume pre-pandemic business plans and processes. And given the size of the federal government, a large-scale move to encourage remote work will influence a variety of management practices at federal agencies and beyond, said Brian Kropp, chief of research in the Gartner HR practice.

Kropp expects the coming government plan to “solidify that remote and hybrid work are what the future of work looks like.

“Not only does it impact the roughly 2 million people that currently work for the federal government, it will also likely impact all of the employees that work as contractors, consultants and provide additional support for federal government employees,” he said. 

In addition, it is likely to encourage state and local governments to follow suite and adopt  more flexible options for their own employees. “The impact of this decision has a cascading effect — potentially impacting another 2 million people across the country and their ability to work remotely in the future,” said Kropp.

Despite the many challenges and distractions of working amidst a pandemic, remote work has largely proved popular with both companies and their employees. While some workers are eager to return to the office, surveys have shown that most now prefer a blend of in-office and remote work.

Remote work grew significantly for US government employees last year, rising from 3% of the workforce in 2019 to 59% at the height of the pandemic, according to a report published last month by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). The survey highlighted an increase in employee engagement and job satisfaction for remote workers.

In the private sector, many businesses — including major banks such as HSBC and JP Morgan — have said they will support flexible work going forward. Fully 70% of private companies are set to boost the flexibility of workplace policies post-pandemic, according to a Forrester report, and 53% of employees want to work from home more often even as offices reopen. 

There are hiring and employee retention ramifications as well. Research from Gartner indicates that 54% of employees say that flexible working policies, or the lack thereof, will affect whether they stay at an organization in the future.

The private-sector shift in expectations around work practices has put pressure on the US government to offer competitive benefits and an improved employee experience, said J.P. Gownder, a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester. “In order to ensure that the federal government can attract, retain, and drive engagement from federal employees, an anywhere-work strategy is imperative,” he said.

Another advantage for the federal government is the opportunity to reduce the size and scope of its real estate holdings. Even a hybrid approach where employees work remotely two to four days a week would allow agencies to lower their office footprints significantly.

“Selling or leasing real estate to private entities could be a source of revenue for the federal government, even as having less real estate under management could lower costs of maintaining and operating the properties,” said Gownder.

With many private companies currently mulling long-term strategies around remote or hybrid remote work, uptake among government agencies — which typically lag the private sector in this respect — could serve to validate a permanent move away from the pre-pandemic status quo.

 “[F]or companies that were planning on having employees come back into the workplace, it will raise pushback from their employees: ‘If the government can pull this off, why can’t we?’” said Kropp.

Nirva Fereshetian, CIO at Boston-based architecture and interior design firm CBT Architects — which has its own plans for support a hybrid workforce — sees the US government move as yet another example of flexible working being accepted among large organizations.

“It would be interesting [to see] how they may be implementing it and what are the parameters; are they doing it as an overall policy, or agency by agency or even as a team-by-team decision?” Fereshetian said. “It comes down to the detail of how your team operates and what are the tasks you do, and how many people are going to come to the office and what is that schedule.

“There is a lot to unpack to see how this actually translates to real execution,” she said.

Not everyone is sold on the idea of a largely remote workforce, however. Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., wants more discussion about the government plans. In a May 21 letter to the OPM, Hice called for federal workers to be required to return to “normal places of work” to the “fullest degree possible.”

“It is time to begin transitioning to the workplace,” Hice wrote. “If it is the administration’s intention to prolong remote working arrangements, then it is appropriate to hold a comprehensive policy discussion around related issues.”