Should the Federal Workforce Stay Remote? Planning for After the Crisis


Apr 3, 2020

Man at home working on a computer, photo by monkeybusinessimages/Getty Images

Photo by monkeybusinessimages/Getty Images

As social distancing becomes the new norm, so too does telework. Such is the case for potentially tens of thousands of employees of federal agencies who, up until about a month ago, spent most of their working days in cubicles, offices, or open-plan workspaces.

There is no telling yet if this surge of new telecommuting will break after the COVID-19 crisis subsides, or if it will build into a permanent new wave of remote government workers. What is likely though is that it will be difficult for some managers to quickly stuff the genie back in the bottle. They, as well as their workforces, will have experienced work-ready mornings sans commute along with other benefits that remote working offers. They will have overcome many of the difficulties and anxieties associated with telework and may have disproven any theories that work roles in their organization cannot be conducted outside the office. Necessity is the mother of invention as they say, and success is the best measure available.

But should federal agencies maintain their remote operations for the long haul?

As those of us involved with national security agencies, operations, and workforce issues know, this is not a decision to make lightly. In the last few years, we've conducted a number of studies to assist federal agencies in making the choice—and the leap, if they thought it was right.

Here are some tips to consider once agency directors and organizational leaders are ready to make the choice:

Weigh the pros and cons. Our analysis of numerous telework-related cost-and-benefit studies conducted for or about the federal government shows what employees and employers stand to gain in a teleworking office. This table brings together our findings:

  Benefit Cost
Direct Savings
Transportation costs and time
Indirect Savings
Ability to optimize where and when work activities are performed
Work-life balance
Direct Costs
Maintaining a home office
Indirect Cost
Professional and social impact of being isolated from the office
Potential Indirect Cost
Need to balance work-life and family
Direct Savings
Reduced employee absences, reduced real estate and other overhead costs
Indirect Savings
Higher worker productivity, better retention, wider applicant pool
Direct Costs
Fielding infrastructure that makes telework possible
Indirect Cost
Losing proprietary information, secrets, and data
Potential Indirect Cost
Loss of line-of-sight supervisory control of employees, loss of the innovation and agility from ad-hoc employee interactions

Planning for After the Crisis

Remember: It's not “everyone or no one.” During the current crisis, telework operations for federal employees have scaled up to preserve critical functions. However, some sectors of the workforce are still required to work from a government facility, because of classification of the work, access to data only available on office systems, or other reasons. This means that not every federal worker can or should be remote from here on out, but it does provide an opportunity to test which functions can be completed remotely. Also remember that teleworking patterns for the government workforce can be as varied as those in the private sector. Employees can and have worked remotely on a full-time, reoccurring, frequent, or ad-hoc basis, in the case of special projects.

Identify and evaluate functions that can—and cannot—be performed remotely, but keep an open mind. This includes documenting barriers to telework for functions that cannot be performed remotely. Identifying options for functions that could be done over the internet may require some modifications to existing policies or systems, so flexibility is key if there are few risks in doing so.

Provide appropriate infrastructure supports. Virtual private networks help employees maintain security while connecting into the agency or company network. Remote employees need enough bandwidth to support normal business activities, which may include videoconferencing, as well as software tools such as Jabber, Jive, and Sharepoint, which are all approved by the Department of Defense. These tools may also help foster in-person innovation and agility between employees, but they may require some training and virtual assistance to get new users up and running.

Ensure logistical supports are in place. This includes training on telework and telework tools, agency policies, which should cover security/access protocols, use of personal digital equipment (computers, phones, tablets, etc.), and policies surrounding non-work activities such as childcare.

Support engagement through communication. Remote employees can connect with each other and with on-site employees through collaboration tools supporting functions like chat, videoconferencing, screen-sharing, and collaborative document-editing.

Support health and well-being. Teleworking presents unique mental health and well-being needs; the federal government offers generous health and wellness plans, but teleworking employees may need additional, or different, services. At the very least, we recommend that health and wellness program information be made available to online employees and their families

Track productivity appropriately to increase management buy-in, reduce fraud, and recognize telework benefits and shortcomings. There are many systems available to track worker productivity. Managers will have to find an appropriate balance for their organization that falls somewhere between complete trust that employees are doing what they should and using software that counts individual keystrokes. Collaboration, both online and in person, might be tracked as well to understand the benefits on both sides.

Engage managers. Managers' support is a critical component of successful implementation. Our studies show that many managers are still distrustful that their employees will actually be capable or willing to continue to work when they are not under the watchful eye of managers. Senior leaders might encourage managers to allow telework to succeed rather than assume it will fail.

The current pandemic may be forcing more and more employees to work from home, but if federal organizations apply the lessons discussed here, they 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. The number of home workers—about a quarter of us in 2018, per the Department of Labor—will have grown faster than you can say, “Let me boot up my laptop.”

Kathryn Anne Edwards and Melanie A. Zaber are associate economists at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. Rich Girven is the director of the Cyber and Intelligence Policy Center and a senior international defense research analyst at RAND.

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