Remote Work the New Normal

If the challenges of the past few months have taught the federal agencies anything, it's that remote work can work for the long term.

COVID-19 has forced federal employees, as well as many of their private sector counterparts, to perform most or all of their tasks from their homes, either with agency-provided hardware and networking or using their own tools.

Even though the current pandemic is forcing agencies to re-examine their priorities, policies and technologies, it actually has a very real precedent in the events of 9/11. During that time, the interest in telework spiked. Congress responded with a committee hearing on The Heightened Need for Telework Opportunities in the Post-9/11 World, where Congressman Tom Davis said that "telework should be an essential component of any continuity of operations plan". The focus on telework continued with the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010, which required agencies to focus on opportunities for telework.

While those events helped familiarize many with the idea of remote work, it hadn't taken off as many had hoped—until now. Today, virtually everybody is teleworking, and many say that business won't revert back to usual, at least completely. Today, agencies and their employees have become used to the idea and know that it can work. In addition, today's technologies make remote work efficient and safe. If deployed widely, it could allow agencies to save money on office space and improve employee satisfaction.

In fact, research has proven that remote work yields great benefits. According to the 2018 Federal Work-Life Survey Report, 72 percent of employees said telework improved performance, 76 percent said it increased the desire to remain at their current agency, and 83 percent said it improved morale. In addition, 67 percent said it minimized distractions, while 64 percent said it improved productivity.

Permanent telework is a real option

In early May, Twitter announced that it would allow some employees to work from home permanently, and other large companies are following suit. A Gartner survey conducted in March found that 74 percent of organizations plan to move at least 5 percent of their previously onsite workforce to permanent remote status after the pandemic.

These numbers will clearly make many employees happy. A Gallup poll in April found that three out of five U.S. employees who have been teleworking during the pandemic would prefer to continue working remotely after the crisis. 

So why shouldn't federal agencies adopt the same philosophy?

Anecdotal evidence indicates that some of them will. The Social Security Administration, for example, is under pressure from the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union, to continue remote work. In fact, federal unions in general are pushing for governmentwide telework. The Defense Department also is reportedly considering permanent teleworking for some Pentagon employees.

Of course, any move like this requires serious consideration of policy and technical roadblocks. Some of the most important include cybersecurity, compliance, collaboration and consistent access. But with today's technology, it's more than possible. The non-profit RAND Corp. advises that federal agencies think carefully about what functions can and can't be performed remotely, while keeping an open mind. For those functions that make sense, provide appropriate infrastructure supports, train employees on tools and policies, and keep the lines of communication open. By taking this advice, RAND analysts say that agencies may be able to avoid pitfalls and problems early, gain more output and better outcomes from their employees during the crisis, and emerge with a more flexible, more capable, and more resilient workforce than before. 


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