The Future Federal Workplace – What’s Next After the Pandemic?

As vaccine availability increases, the next logical question for many federal workers is “what is work going to look like in the next few months?” And what are the longer term implications?

One thing we have learned from the pandemic is that the naysayers who said telework does not work were wrong. Those folks resisted telework for years, making every argument you can imagine about how telework is completely unworkable. I imagine many of them are preparing their arguments now to insist that every federal worker show up in a government office as soon as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says it is safe.

That mass return to the pre-pandemic status quo is not going to happen. The return is likely to look different depending on the agency and the type of work it does. Some will try to get as many employees back in the office as possible, while others will adopt a hybrid model. I believe the norm for most agencies will be a hybrid, with the degree of in-office time determined by mission requirements (such as direct customer interaction). How those hybrid work arrangements look is likely to evolve as agencies and employees learn what works, what doesn’t, and what is missing in terms of technology, security, work flow, and many additional factors. That means we should not expect the workplace to look like the pandemic-induced stay at home model, nor should we expect it to land in the right place on the first try. A lot of learning is going to be needed to find the right mix.

One question I am hearing is “why not just keep going with maximum telework?” There are a few reasons why that is not likely to work for most agencies. Here are just a few of the considerations that are likely to influence agency decisions.

  1. What is possible is not necessarily what is desirable. The move to maximum telework was a response to a life-or-death crisis. Agencies learned that it is possible to have far more telework than they imagined. That learning is good, and it removes many of the anti-telework arguments from some managers. There are downsides of maximum telework that we can live with in a pandemic, but may not want to have permanently. For example, how do we onboard new employees and give them a sense of being part of the organization? What do we lose when those casual interactions in the office that no longer happen? Much of what happens in a workplace is not in the formal meetings, or when employees are sitting at their desks. It comes from the unplanned interactions that happen every day. Those are not going to happen in the same way, and losing them entirely presents risks.
  2. What happens to the cities? Imagine Washington, DC if half of federal workers are no longer working in the city. Agencies will shrink their office footprint rather than paying rent on empty spaces. Sounds good, right? It may be good for agency budgets, but what happens to the commercial real estate market? What happens to the small businesses that provide service to those facilities? What happens to the restaurants? As the largest employer in some locations, the government may drive down the economies of some cities if it continues the amount of telework that we have experienced since last March.
  3. How do we measure productivity? Some agencies have missions that lend themselves to measuring remote work. The processes and outputs are easily measured, and the agencies will have no trouble determining how productive employees are. Other agencies have work that does not lend itself to easy measurement. Even though most employees are productive at home, as we try to rebuild confidence in government, it will be critical that telework not be viewed as a way for people to get paid for not working.
  4. Do people have to live close to their agency office? This is one of the big questions. If I can telework full time, why would my agency ask me to live nearby? The electrons flowing into and out of my computer work the same whether I am 5 or 5,000 miles away. Even if I am in a different time zone, I can still work the same core hours that everyone else would be required to work. This one is workable for some jobs, but not so much for others. Agencies will need to assess what the real in-person requirements are.
  5. My office is in DC, but I moved to Iowa. Why don’t I get DC locality pay? There are pros and cons of relocating to low-cost areas. Locality pay is intended to reflect to some degree the costs in the area where you work. If you change your work location to a different city, you will benefit from the low costs, but you cannot expect to continue to get paid for working in DC.

It is clear that work and workplaces are going to change. It is also clear that we do not know how that will look and are not likely to have that knowledge soon. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and the General Services Administration (GSA) are considering how the federal workplace will look in the future. I expect OPM to issue guidance soon that will help agencies as they evolve their workplaces. The good news is that OPM is being proactive and has an experienced team dealing with the issue.

The anti-government crowd will use increased telework to argue that government employees get paid for staying home all day. It does not matter that it is not true, and that most employees who work from home are at least as productive at home (and some even more productive). The people who do not want anything to change will argue that pandemic driven telework was a limited time necessity and a status quo ante approach is best. People who want maximum telework all the time will argue that we have proven it can work.

I am sure there are folks who want to know now what the future will be. They want OPM to issue guidance today. They want governmentwide policies. And they want everyone to get it right on the first try. I think that is asking too much. The changes the pandemic brought were driven by necessity, and even then it took a while to get to where we are now. We should expect this process to evolve as agencies learn what will and will not work for them. We should expect OPM to give agencies flexibility, within a common set of principles, to adapt their workplaces to the realities they face. I am confident that what we will end up with is a reshaped federal workplace that is far more flexible than it was in the past.

What Did NAPA Recommend for OPM? And are they Correct?

Last week the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) issued its long-awaited report on the Trump Administration proposal to abolish the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and move most of the OPM mission to the General Services Administration (GSA). The bottom line from NAPA’s report is this:

The need for an independent, enterprise-wide human capital agency and steward of the merit system principles is clear, as is the critical need to rebuild staff capacity, encourage innovation, and adopt a more data- driven, accountable, and forward-looking human capital approach. In addition, human capital management must be elevated. The OPM Director — and human capital as a whole — needs a “seat at the table.” The Director should be the principal advisor to the President on human capital, as envisioned in the Civil Service Reform Act, and OPM should be that lead for federal civilian human capital, setting policy, establishing a framework for agencies to manage their workforces, facilitating innovation and the sharing of best practices and lessons learned, and both collecting and using data and data analytics.

There is a lot to unpack in those few sentences, so let’s go through it step by step and look at what it might mean if Congress and the Biden Administration accept and implement NAPA’s recommendations (as they should).

First up is “independent.” When OPM was created by the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 it was intended to be an Independent agency. In practice, OPM is not independent at all. It has become, as NAPA’s panel observed, more and more subservient to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Some argue that OMB is more flexible and innovative, while others will argue that OMB is more political because it is part of the White House. I believe OMB has capitalized on OPM’s weaknesses to exert too much control over OPM and its programs, and has contributed to OPM’s weakness. Former Obama Administration OPM Director John Berry referred to OMB as “the big dog” and OPM as “the flea.” If OPM is to ever recover, that must change and OPM must be independent of OMB.

Next is “enterprise-wide human capital agency.” It may surprise readers to learn that OPM does not have policy oversight for large segments of the federal workforce. They are primarily focused on those agencies and employees covered by Title 5 of the United States Code. That means there is no government-wide approach to managing the workforce. No one has the reins. There is no strategy, no comprehensive view of the workforce, and no way to effectively deal with the government’s workforce needs. OPM’s scope must be expanded to cover the entire federal workforce. Doing so will require Congress to expand OPM’s authority. They should do so and President Biden should sign it.

NAPA cited “the critical need to rebuild staff capacity” at OPM. Amen. OPM has been on a gradual decline since the Clinton Administration gutted federal Human Resources offices and OPM as part of the National Performance Review. OPM’s decline accelerated when the Trump Administration proposed abolishing the agency and moving most of its work to GSA, except for a handful of policy people who would be moved to OMB. OPM is an essential agency and it must be restored. Reversing decades of decline is not going to be easy. OPM needs resources, including appropriated dollars to cover all of its policy and oversight work. They need more staff, better technology, and time to make the changes.

Transforming OPM is far more than throwing money at it and hiring more people. It also requires a change in mindset at the agency. NAPA said they should “encourage innovation.” Innovation is not something OPM is known for. In fact, the agency has a history of discouraging innovation by agencies. When OPM has flexibility they are hesitant to use it. Their lawyers tend to say no far more than they say yes. A robust embrace of innovation is the foundation of a rebuilt OPM. Without it, all the dollars the government can print will not make a difference.

NAPA recommended that OPM “adopt a more data- driven, accountable, and forward-looking human capital approach.” The federal government has massive amounts of data regarding its workforce. For the most part that data goes into a black hole and is never used. The analytics that could make it useful are nowhere to be found. Technology is used, but stovepiped too much. That stovepiping continues in the way OPM and agencies do their work. Lasting changes in federal human capital management require data, both to decide what needs to be done and whether programs are effective. Absent data, we are just taking shots in the dark.

An important aspect of NAPA’s findings is the idea that “The (OPM) Director should be the principal advisor to the President on human capital.” As NAPA observed, that simply is not the case. As OMB has asserted more control over OPM and workforce policies, the Director of OPM has become far less influential. I agree with NAPA’s panel that the OPM Director should be the principal human capital advisor to the President. I would take that a step farther and  designate the OPM Director as a member of the President’s Cabinet, as President Bill Clinton did with former OPM Director Janice Lachance. I believe that is the best way to ensure the OPM Director is able to carry out the role it was intended to serve.

NAPA’s panel did a thorough job in laying out the issues. It concluded that there was no information that supported the Trump Administration proposal. It also highlighted the sidelining of the Chief Human Capital Officers Council in recent years. I agree completely. The CHCO Council should serve as a sort of board of directors for OPM, yet OPM has often ignored the Council. The NAPA report highlights the lack of clout of the CHCO Council as compared to the CIO Council and others. That should be changed and the CHCO Council given more influence.

One area that I wish the NAPA panel has explored in more detail is OPM’s fee-for-service business, particularly development of HR software. I agreed with OPM’s decision during the Obama Administration to bring USAJobs in house, Part of the argument OPM used for bringing USAJobs in house was that having a job board that was accessible to multiple vendors would encourage innovation in hiring tools. Their development of an expanding suite of HR software may be stifling innovation in the field. For more on that, take a look at this post from 2019. 

Overall, I believe NAPA’s report was excellent. The next steps will require the Biden Administration to embrace the recommendations and the Congress to reform OPM’s enabling legislation and appropriate sufficient funds for OPM to rebuild. I believe that is essential if we are going to build the workforce capabilities the government needs.