In Congress, remote work policy debate hides facts

U.S. House Republicans criticize the Interior Department's remote work policy, saying it lowers productivity. Selective omissions of data challenge these claims.

U.S. House Republican criticisms of remote work policies zero in on the U.S. Department of the Interior, putting its chief human resources officer in the hot seat.

The department's remote work policy requires telework-eligible employees to be in the office at least two full workdays per biweekly pay period. According to the department, it employs about 70,000 people, and about 55% are eligible for telework.

But when Mark Green, chief human capital officer of the Interior Department, faced U.S. House lawmakers this month, he was at an immediate disadvantage.

The House Committee on Natural Resources' Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, which oversees his department, had issued a nine-page broadside against telework, citing government reports and academic studies, to make a case that "services for the American public are negatively affected by permissive remote and telework policies."

In his opening remarks at a hearing, Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), the subcommittee chair, said remote work can be useful in "well-defined circumstances," but "excessive current levels of telework and remote work" are "leading to a lack of productivity among federal agencies."

Report excludes exculpatory data

However, TechTarget Editorial's review of some of the report's source material revealed that the staff report offers a selective presentation of the facts, excludes critical data, and omits counterarguments or different perspectives. The staff report includes links to its sources.

The memo cited, for instance, a September 2023 inspector general report on the National Park Service about challenges in handling deferred maintenance and noted more than 200,000 open work orders. The committee staff report called it "another example" of how the department's "permissive telework and remote work policies betray the American taxpayer."

But the inspector general report didn't cite telework as the problem. It pointed to deferred maintenance issues going back at least two decades, unreliable and inaccurate data, and other problems.

About 65% of the Interior Department's workers are in the office on any given day, said Green, who testified before the committee that telework improves productivity and benefits recruiting.

"We've actually increased in many areas in performance with telework," Green told the subcommittee. He broadly said it delivers higher retention, engagement and job satisfaction levels.

Private sector competition ignored

To compete with the private sector, Green said, it is essential that the Department of the Interior continues to offer workforce flexibility.

If government departments are not going to offer remote flexibility, and if they are going to require employees to live in expensive capital cities, it's even more important that pay remain competitive.
Julia PollakChief economist, ZipRecruiter

According to Julia Pollak, chief economist at ZipRecruiter, political criticism is reducing the number of remote work job offers by the government, outlined in the employment marketplace's recent "Labor Market Outlook Report."

"If government departments are not going to offer remote flexibility, and if they are going to require employees to live in expensive capital cities, it's even more important that pay remain competitive," Pollak said.

She added that workers see remote work as equivalent to an 8% to 10% pay raise.

The subcommittee staff report was particularly critical of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), which is overseen by the Interior Department. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) examined the BIA, and in a report published in October, it cited missed deadlines among other problems, including with communications.

However, the subcommittee's report didn't point out that in the BIA's Division of Land Titles and Records, 28% of the positions were vacant, and offices were facing high staff turnover.

Telecommuting isn't perfect

There are some problems with telework at Interior, the GAO said in testimony last week. BIA needs to open regional offices for in-person services because some people, such as those without internet access, are not getting proper services, it noted.

The subcommittee report cited a study by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, which said, on the webpage introducing it, "Fully remote work is associated with about 10% lower productivity than fully in-person work."

However, the actual Stanford study, which reviewed multiple different studies, said something different about hybrid work that was not included in the subcommittee memo.

"Studies of hybrid working arrangements often find productivity gains (relative to traditional arrangements) or no discernible effect," the study said.

It's in the area of fully remote work where controversy seems the strongest.

Comparison graphic of Trump vs. Biden on remote work.
How President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump differ on remote work policy.

Study perspectives

The subcommittee's staff memo cited academic studies, including a report last year by the National Bureau of Economic Research, which found that the productivity of full-time remote workers "is 18% lower than [that of] those in the office."

The staff memo didn't mention that the study looked at new data entry workers in India. But this doesn't necessarily discount the validity of the finding for U.S. employers.

David Atkin, an MIT professor of economics and the study's lead author, said similar negative productivity effects are found in studies in the U.S. comparing full-time in-office work with full-time work from home.

Indeed, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York studied a U.S. Fortune 500 company's call centers that employed both remote and on-site workers in the same jobs. It found that "prior to COVID-19, remote workers answered 12 percent fewer calls per hour than on-site workers."

But Atkin noted that some middle ground might be superior. "Something like three days a week in the office may achieve high productivity -- the ability to interact with team members face to face and to inculcate new employees in a company culture, all while maintaining employee satisfaction through two days of flexible work."

Atkin said the Stanford study "makes this case convincingly" for hybrid work.

Patrick Thibodeau covers HCM and ERP technologies for TechTarget Editorial. He's worked for more than two decades as an enterprise IT reporter.

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