By Steve Kelman

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Is it time to go back to the office?

telework (No-Mad/

“I don’t think the workforce is psychologically prepared to return to the office.”

These words came from a GS-15 participating in a Kennedy School executive education program as we were talking during a break.

“A lot of big companies have told their workers they will need to come back to the office by the end of the summer,” the individual said. “But there’s been no discussion or preparation for this in the government.” If the word comes down that people need to return to the office, he added, there may be a revolt, including from employee unions.

Many of the feds I’ve spoken with over the last few months have said to me they would like to keep working remotely indefinitely, at least most of the week. They say they are doing just fine remotely and can perform their work duties without problems. The White House last week issued guidance that will give agencies substantial flexibility to allow for more telework long term.

What should we think about this?

One view is that it turns out that the pandemic has taught us something we didn’t expect before – that, in terms of productivity, we can do as well remotely as in person. And of course if productivity is the same, there are lots of advantages to remote work. For employees, there are savings in time and hassle from commuting (surely a main reason remote work is popular). For agencies, if remote work spreads as a permanent phenomenon, there are big savings from less need for office space.

I think it is almost certainly fair to say that, for now at least, any doomsday scenario about a remote working productivity catastrophe have not come to pass.

But I still have some worries. It has always been a common view that physical proximity promotes productivity – having colleagues nearby promotes informal advice-seeking and learning. I see no reason to abandon that view. I suspect there are very few government workplaces where we can measure productivity so well that we would notice a 10% drop due to lack of physical proximity.

Second, remote work (where productivity can’t be measured exactly) relies a lot on some mixture of in-person instructions from bosses and the honor system. Most feds I have spoken with would agree that remote work for conscientious employees works fine, but that it makes it easier for slackers to slack. I worry that, if remote work continues over time, gradually the in-person incentives not to slack will diminish, and performance will deteriorate.

I am not certain about any of the above points, but I would recommend caution with an indefinite continuation of mostly remote work.

What do readers think? Send me emails ([email protected]) or Linkedin posts (Steven Kelman) with your thoughts.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Jun 15, 2021 at 5:37 AM


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