5 Top Questions Feds Have About Returning to the Office

Federal agency leaders are making plans to increase the number of people working onsite at agency offices. But, the transition to in-person work won’t happen all at once, and it won’t necessarily bring everyone back to the office.

A June 2021 guidance memo from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) directs agency leaders to come up with phased transition plans and mandates giving plenty of notice to employees who must return to the office. The OMB guidance also explicitly encourages agencies to leverage “telework, remote work, and flexible work schedules as tools in their broader strategies for talent recruitment and retention, and for advancing diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility in the Federal workforce.”

Hybrid workforces that include both onsite and offsite employees are becoming the future of the federal government. It’s not just a government trend. A recent study found that 39% of workers would consider quitting if their employers weren’t flexible about remote work — 49% when younger workers were asked.

There are also deeply-rooted workplace issues that impact return-to-office sentiments. Another study found that just 3% of Black employees surveyed want to return to fully in-person work. The reasons for the general reluctance to return to the office include continued risk from unvaccinated coworkers, workplace racism and harassment, lack of caregiving options, and more.

Likewise, government employees have concerns about what a possible return to the office will mean for them. Let’s look at some of the big questions we’ve heard weighing on the minds of federal workers.

1. Who decides if I’m eligible for telework, remote work, or a flexible schedule?

While agency leaders will be the ones designing the broader return-to-office transition plans, the OMB guidance says agencies should not implement these plans in isolation. The guidance from OMB explains that “most decisions about the application of those [transition plans] should be delegated to the lowest level of the organization to provide maximum flexibility for defining work requirements to meet mission and workforce needs.”

You can make a personal request to work offsite some or part of the time. Your manager or supervisor may be able to advocate for your team or you to be eligible for telework, remote work or an alternative schedule. You and other employees, unions, local community members, and other stakeholders should also be included in discussions that leaders use in their decision-making about the hybrid workplace.

2. Will my agency make me return to the office full time?

Remote work was pretty rare at federal agencies before the pandemic. But during the pandemic, government employees proved that they can deliver on their missions in the toughest of times, whether they’re at the agency worksite or a home office. The OMB guidance is clear that federal agencies should still plan to “open with maximum telework flexibilities.”

Under normal circumstances, an employer is usually under no obligation to allow you to work from home. There’s no guarantee you’ll be able to work offsite even if you’re absolutely sure you can do your job just as well, even if you’ve excelled at working from home throughout the pandemic, even if you just perfected your home office workstation, or even if your buddy with a similar job gets to take meetings from their couch. That said, we still haven’t reached anything that can be called “normal.” The OMB guidance acknowledges this continued abnormal reality, noting that “employees who have been teleworking during the pandemic generally will remain eligible for telework.”

If your agency is uncertain if a hybrid workplace with a mix of onsite and offsite employees is the right decision, the OMB guidance suggests first trying it out as a temporary pilot.

3. Will my locality pay change if I don’t have to return to the office full time?

When looking at the issue of locality pay, it’s essential to understand the difference between telework and remote work. To OMB, they’re not quite the same. Telework is when you have to show up at your agency’s physical office or worksite a set number of times during each pay period. When you telework, you’ll most likely live within commuting distance of your agency.

Remote work is when you don’t need to report to the agency office on any sort of regular schedule, though you can be required to occasionally travel to the agency. When you work remotely, you can choose to live near your agency or in a completely different part of the country.

In general, if you’re a General Schedule employee who gets to telework, your locality pay is based on your agency office location. But, if you get approved for remote work, your locality pay is based on your remote worksite location — that is, your home office or wherever else you’re authorized to work from — not your agency location.

If you’re approved to work remotely and decide to move away from your agency office, you could see your locality pay change depending on where you relocate to.

4. What if I can’t safely return to the office?

According to the OMB guidance, the federal government is not mandating that its employees and contractors get vaccinated, nor is it requiring them to disclose if they are unvaccinated. Your unvaccinated coworkers will continue to be a source of risk, particularly in indoor workplaces.

If you need to reduce your contact with others because you have a higher risk for complications from COVID–19, a disability, or a preexisting mental health condition that is exacerbated by the pandemic, you may be able to request what’s called reasonable accommodation.

This reasonable accommodation may allow you to work from home on a regular or as-needed basis, or temporarily change your schedule or work duties. Or you might still have to return to the office, but your agency may need to modify the workplace to minimize contact with others. Keep in mind that you’re only entitled to reasonable accommodation for your own medical condition, not that of a family member, a person you live with, or someone you’re a caregiver for.

5. What’s going to happen next?

By July 19, agencies will roll out high-level transition plans for returning to the office. These plans will happen in phases, so it might take a while for changes at your workplace to be announced. Additional decisions will need to be made about how to implement the transition plans, which will take some time. If you’ll be required to return to the office, your agency must give you at least 30 days notice.

OMB will likely issue more guidance about hybrid offices, telework, remote work and alternative schedules in the months to come.

Lauren Girardin is a marketing and communications consultant, storyteller, and freelance writer based in San Francisco. She helps organizations engage their communities and tell their stories. Her website is laurengirardin.com and you can connect with her on Twitter at @girardinl.

Photo by S O C I A L . C U T on Unsplash

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