Inside OPM’s new telework guidelines

Detailed guidance focuses on pandemic emergencies, information security

The Office of Personnel Management released new rules Aug. 3 to guide managers and employees involved in telework programs. The guidelines define telework options and emphasize the importance of an ergonomic workplace. OPM wrote the new rules with a flu pandemic in mind.

The guide “provides the steps that agencies should take to make telework an integral part of their plans to maintain operations in the event of a pandemic health crisis,” said Daniel Green, OPM’s deputy associate director of the Center for Employee and Family Support Policy.

OPM emphasized the varied nature of telework. It can be less than once a week, once or twice a week, or at least three days a week, according to the guidelines. The document covers most of the issues that apply to most federal agencies.

Bernie Skoch, executive vice president of the Suss Consulting group, said OPM framed the issues well. “There isn’t a one-size-fits-all, but there are some fundamental principles [agencies] must adhere to,” he said. “I’m satisfied that the guidelines address them fairly well.”

A telework advocacy group greeted the OPM guidelines as a great first step, but it said agencies will need more specific rules to establish a solid telework program. “It’s very high level,” said Stephen O’Keeffe, executive director of the Telework Exchange, a group that promotes federal telework programs. “We need to drill down to provide agencies some of the details.”

O’Keeffe said agencies need to make telework part of their standard operating procedures before they can work it into continuity-of-operations plans.

The new telework guidelines emphasize communication. They encourage an open dialogue between teleworkers and managers and recommend establishing a list of expectations, creating an agreement between managers and teleworkers, and establishing good performance management practices.

The guidelines prohibit managers from canceling telework options except for business reasons, such as poor job performance. OPM includes guidance to help employees establish work schedules.

OPM published the new guidelines just as agencies have begun to focus on telework programs as part of their COOP plans. COOP has been a frequent topic of congressional hearings in the past few months.

Flooding that affected several federal buildings in Washington, D.C., in June helped focus attention on the necessity of working from home during emergency situations. About 200 Internal Revenue Service employees started teleworking immediately after the flooding.

OPM states in the guidelines that telework would “help retain functionality as infrastructure issues and other challenges make the main worksite difficult to access.”

The guide also establishes a benchmark for COOP capability, which must be available within 12 hours and continue for as long as 30 days or more. In the example of the IRS, employees may not be able to return to the Washington facility until December.

Security constitutes a major portion of the new telework guidelines. The Office of Management and Budget’s guidelines, the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Special Publications and Federal Information Security Management Act guidance apply to telework under OPM’s new guidelines.

OPM sets ground rules for teleworkNew telework guidelines from the Office of Management and Budget emphasize good communication between managers and employees and the importance of establishing expectations and good performance management practices. The guidelines include the following suggestions.

Guidelines for managers

Managers MUST:

  • Implement routine telework practices in their organizations to the fullest extent possible.
  • Treat employees equitably and fairly in implementing telework.
  • Identify eligible and ineligible employees using established agency criteria.
  • Include telework in continuity-of-operations plans and other emergency response planning.

Managers MUST NOT:

  • Require that an employee work from home in a non-emergency situation.
  • Terminate a telework agreement for reasons other than business or performance issues.

Managers MAY:

  • Require an employee to work at an alternative worksite, such as a telework center within the employee’s commuting area.
  • Terminate a telework agreement for business reasons, such as an employee’s poor performance or a change in the nature of the work.

Guidelines for employees

Teleworkers MUST:

  • Comply with the security and telework policies of their agency.
  • Take responsibility for ensuring the success of the telework arrangement.
  • Notify the manager of any changes in their situation that might affect the telework arrangement.

Teleworkers MUST NOT:

  • Assume a telework arrangement is permanent.
  • Use telework as a substitute for child or other dependent care.

Teleworkers MAY:

  • Use appropriate grievance procedures if they believe managers wrongfully denied or terminated their telework request or agreement. Managers may deny or terminate telework requests only for business reasons, and they must provide written justification to the employee.

Source: Office of Personnel Management

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