Opinion | Scaling back remote work at federal agencies is overdue – The Washington Post

The administration’s new guidelines emphasize “organizational health and organizational performance” and rightly call on agency workforces “to increase meaningful in-person work.” Best of all, these guidelines urge respective government agencies to submit work plans to the Office of Management and Budget that describe their current telework policies as well as their implementation plans for a return to the office.

For months, the federal government has described the coronavirus as “endemic,” signifying that the deadly virus remains a serious risk but is now a known commodity, no longer the unprecedented emergency of previous years. So it is ironic that a large percentage of federal workers still haven’t returned to the office, when many of their private-sector counterparts have.

According to a recent Post-Schar School poll, nearly half of Washington workers say they have jobs that can be done remotely all or some of the time. But of those, 80 percent of federal workers polled who are capable of working from home say they would like to continue working remotely all or most of the time. (That compares with 33 percent of non-federal workers.) About 60 percent says they would like to be completely remote.

That is unsustainable, and it has had a palpable impact on the city of Washington. Stroll through downtown these days, and the city’s grand avenues and stately facades seem attached to a ghost town, a shell of the lively center the area was before the pandemic. For-lease signs abound; glass towers sit empty. That’s largely because many federal employees are still working from home, and they account for about one-quarter of jobs downtown.

In January, Washington’s Democratic mayor, Muriel E. Bowser, smarting from a downturn in tax revenue, used her third inaugural address to call for the Biden administration to use “decisive action” to bring “most federal workers back to the office most of the time.” Ms. Bowser is justified in raising the issue: At the very least, the federal government owes the city some clarity on occupancy of downtown buildings, so that municipal authorities can decide how best to proceed.

Despite the claims of traditional managers who insist on a full return to five days in the office, the truth is that U.S. productivity actually spiked in the second half of 2020 while most offices were shut. And it fell sharply in the first quarters of 2022, when most companies began mandating a return to the office. A full return to the office has also been linked to the phenomenon of “quiet quitting,” so federal agencies, like other workplaces, aren’t wrong to try and retain workers as best they can — even if it remains unclear how agencies measure productivity among remote workers.

To that end, federal workers need not work in the office five days per week; like other employees, including those of The Post, they should be entitled to work on a hybrid schedule that mandates a certain number of days in the office. And, indeed, the new guidelines allow for the continued existence of “flexible operational policies” at government agencies.

Compromise here is key. Federal workers, like other office workers across the country, are entitled to flexible work schedules. But for the sake of the city, as well as the taxpayers who have had to keep commuting to their jobs, even during the uptick in omicron infections this past winter, they should not be entitled to work remotely indefinitely.

This content was originally published here.

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