The Biden administration on Thursday told federal agencies that more employees can return to their offices as the threat of the coronavirus pandemic ebbs, but it also laid out a permanent work-from-home expansion that will drastically alter the federal government’s workplace culture.
Federal agencies no longer have to limit the number of staffers allowed in their offices to 25 percent occupancy, the administration said in the first major announcement on pandemic staffing it has issued since January.
But the 20-page memo to federal agencies also maintains what started as an experiment in March 2020 to contend with the public health crisis — for the immediate future and potentially the long term.
As they make plans for a post-pandemic workplace, agencies across the government will be allowed to offer employees flexible schedules and remote work, depending on their needs, according to the guidance from the acting heads of the Office of Management and Budget, the Office of Personnel Management and the General Services Administration.
“Evaluation of an employee’s performance should be based on factors such as accountability for results or quality of the work, and should not be affected by whether an employee is working in the office, teleworking, based remotely, or working a flexible work schedule,” they wrote.
The embrace of “maximum telework flexibilities” amounts to a massive shift for the federal government, which has long lagged behind the private sector when it comes to offering remote work. It is likely to be closely watched by other employers, since the federal government, with a workforce of 2.1 million, is the country’s largest employer.
The move shows how the thinking about the workplace has shifted inside the federal bureaucracy, which for decades has operated under a top-down, risk-averse model requiring employees to be in their seats to show they were working. That approach has hampered efforts to attract new employees — especially the young talent the civil service lacks, some officials said.
“It is a positive development for the government to make the promotion of flexibility and remote work a core principle in its plans for the post-pandemic world of work,” Adam Ozimek, chief economist at Upwork, an online site for hiring freelancers and a leading voice on remote work, said in an email. “This isn’t just about making work better for people, but increasing access to talent and spreading opportunity across the U.S.”
The announcement was sharply criticized by some Republicans in Congress who have complained that a slow return of federal employees to the workplace by the Biden administration has led to diminished services for the public.
“With continued telework flexibility, government workers won’t be able access constituent’s VA medical records or IRS financial records while working from home because those need to be secured in an office,” Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.) said in a statement. “This is an enormous problem as constituents lack access to key government services and seeing in real time their taxes wasted.”
Waltz is one of several Republican lawmakers who have asked the Biden administration to explain why federal offices in states with low transmission rates remain closed.