The House Oversight and Accountability Committee held a hearing this week to review the efficiency of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), and the debate largely revolved around the Federal agency’s ability to fulfill its mission while allowing its employees to telework.

“Reports have shown that only one in three Federal employees have returned to the workplace since the start of the pandemic,” Chair James Comer, R-Ky., said. “Returning to in-person work means returning to the core mission of each Federal agency – which is to serve the needs of the American people.”

“Unfortunately, casework backlogs and slow response times have become routine complaints since the pandemic,” Rep. Comer added.

OPM is the largest employer in the country, overseeing more than 2.1 million Federal workers. Due to the sheer number of people the agency must accommodate, OPM’s Director Kiran Ahuja testified during the March 9 hearing that offering telework is a necessity to keep their competitive edge in the workforce.

“Throughout this pandemic, and still now, more than 50 percent of the workforce shows up in person every day,” Ahuja said.

“Face time is not a proxy for performance. We actually need to utilize these workplace flexibilities in order to take advantage of what we’ve learned throughout the pandemic,” the OPM director emphasized. “We’ve actually seen greater engagement by employees. We’ve seen greater productivity and performance.”

Ahuja noted that more than 30 percent of OPM’s workforce works in a fully remote capacity and more than 60 percent work hybrid. The OPM director said more than 50 percent of employees are in the office on any given day due to their jobs requiring them to be on-site – like careers in facilities, healthcare, or law enforcement.

In early January, Rep. Comer introduced the SHOW UP Act which would roll back Federal agency telework policies to their year-end 2019 levels. The House cleared the bill early last month, and it has been referred to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

“If the President of the United States is saying the emergency is over, I assure you my friends on the other side of the aisle – probably joined by a fair amount of my friends on this side of the aisle – are going to expect that the workplace requirements change with that change,” committee Ranking Member Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said during the hearing.

“The same guidance can’t be true in June of this year as was true in the depths of the pandemic in early 2020,” he added.

The Biden-Harris Administration announced its intent to end the COVID-19 emergency on May 11, and many lawmakers expect Federal agencies to return to the office for that reason – despite strong endorsements that telework provides flexibility and a competitive edge.

“We are the largest employer in the country. We have an opportunity to be that model – to set the standard for pay, for benefits, for workplace flexibilities,” OPM’s Ahuja said.

OPM Offers new Telework Guidelines for Agencies

Just two days prior to her testimony in front of the House Oversight and Accountability Committee, Ahuja sent a memo that lays out a hybrid “future of work” vision to Federal agencies.

OPM’s March 7 strategy emphasizes the role of remote work and telework, as well as the increasingly common hybrid work environment.

Working in tandem with agency chief human capital officers, OPM launched a five-part strategy, aiming to help agencies with their long-term strategic workforce planning.

The first priority is to develop policies and resources to support agencies as they continue to operate in a hybrid work environment and as the future of the workforce evolves.

“OPM will update policies and pursue legislative changes with administration partners, as appropriate, to remove barriers identified during the pandemic, promote success in a hybrid work environment, and implement longer-term policy changes needed to support the workforce of the future,” Ahuja wrote in the memo.

OPM’s four other priorities that support the future of hybrid work in the Federal government include:

  • Research and evaluation;
  • Training and technical assistance;
  • Data analytics; and
  • Stakeholder engagement.

On the same day, OPM also announced more upcoming requirements for agencies to report data on each Federal employee’s participation in telework.

Specifically, agencies will have to report on whether employees are working on a telework agreement as a way for human resources departments to keep track. Additionally, agencies will have to report both instances and hours of remote work per pay period, to record the frequency of telework across each agency.

“We have heard from the agencies, through ongoing re-entry support activities, that having more refined data related to telework and remote work will assist you in evaluating how employee work arrangements are impacting key workforce considerations – such as productivity, recruitment, and retention – that are critical to successful organizational performance,” Ahuja wrote in the memo.

She continued, adding, “These new data elements will provide deeper and improved granularity into understanding the workforce characteristics.”

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Cate Burgan
Cate Burgan
Cate Burgan is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.