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Republicans criticize remote work, White House defends it

Republicans want to end remote work and force federal workers back to the office, but White House officials say it's essential in competing with private sector employers.

Corporate America has adopted remote work, full-time and hybrid, and so has the federal government, but in Congress, Republicans want remote work for federal employees phased out.

In 2021, about 36% of the two million federal civilian employees teleworked full-time, compared to 2% who reported working remotely before the pandemic, according to a recent U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) survey. 

Last November, 42 Republican senators signed a letter blaming remote work for customer service problems. The letter demanded "immediate action to transition federal workers to resume in-person operations." Those concerns have not gone away.  

Jody Hice (R-Ga.), the ranking member of the Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing last week on the future of the federal workforce, came out swinging against President Biden's effort to make the federal government a model employer. Being a model employer means offering federal workers benefits and workplace flexibility, including remote work, on par with or better than the private sector. 

Hice said the Biden administration's "model employer" concept is "a catchphrase for treating federal workers like a privileged, protected class." His concern was more specific regarding telework: "There has been no assessment of how telework impacts agency performance."

The White House is developing hiring and pay changes to help recruit and retain workers, especially those with cyber skills. It is considering benefit improvements "that better align adjusting policies to what the private sector is offering" for hard-to-fill positions, such as student loan repayment help, said Jason Miller, deputy director for management at the White House Office of Management and Budget, at the hearing. 

Concerning remote work, the White House is considering "giving agencies and employees more discretion for scheduling, location and mobility" options that reflect the current labor market, Miller said.

Percentage of federal employees who work remotely full-or part-time.
Percentage of federal employees who work remotely full-or part-time.

Although some firms, such as Tesla Inc., have rejected remote work, many employees in the U.S. have a remote option. In a recent survey, management consulting McKinsey & Co. found that 58% of U.S. workers can work from home at least one day a week.

"We have a real competition out there with the private sector because they are employing the same workplace flexibilities," said Kiran Ahuja, the director of OPM, who also testified at the hearing. Telework and remote work are critical recruitment tools, she said. 

Competition for employees

The competition for employees is also happening in the government internally, Ahuja said, with some employees "agency hopping" or moving to jobs where they can get more flexibility.

We have the ability to recruit in literally every county, every part of this country, in ways that we weren't able to do before.
Kiran AhujaDirector, U.S. Office of Personnel Management

Remote work has also enabled the government to expand its hiring pool, Ahuja said. 

"We have the ability to recruit in literally every county, every part of this country, in ways that we weren't able to do before," she said. 

The pandemic forced agencies to adopt remote working arrangements, "and it worked," said U.S. Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-Va.), the subcommittee chair. But Connolly is also seeking better data on the government's use of remote work. 

In June, Connolly reintroduced the "Telework Metrics and Cost Savings Act," which will standardize how agencies report remote work and improve data collection. The bill was first introduced in 2020, a prior session. The bill also calls for training managers who lead telework efforts and to "track cost savings achieved through the expansion of telework."

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