Senate Panel Turns to Private Sector to Overhaul Federal Telework Policy

Back in March nearly every workplace – public and private – has to rapidly pivot and shift from in-person work to telework due to COVID-19.

While businesses and government agencies are slowly beginning to reopen, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs and Financial Management is hoping to learn from the private sector’s success in telework and modernize the Federal government’s telework policy.

While the government has made a concerted effort to modernize legacy IT systems, one area lagging is its telework policies. During the July 28, Chairman of the Subcommittee James Lankford, R-Okla., pointed out that while Congress passed its first piece of legislation related to a Federal employee working outside of their assigned office in 1990, it has been 10 years since Congress passed any “significant” legislation affect the Federal workforce and teleworking. Lankford said “I want to reinvent the wheel” and that the Tuesday hearing is the first in a series of Federal workforce-related hearings.

Congress’ most recent telework legislation, the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010, set the current telework standards and requirements for the Federal workforce. However, because of “so many changes in the world over the last 10 years or in the case of just 2020 so many changes period this year,” Lankford said it’s prudent to look at current telework policies and see what makes sense and what doesn’t work for the Federal workforce.

For this hearing, the Subcommittee sought out private sector experts. Lankford justified this decision by saying that learning from the private sector is important because “we have a responsibility to ensure Federal workforce strategies are relevant, cost-effective, and well thought out.” He further noted that the private sector had begun expanding their telework capabilities beyond what the government was doing well before the pandemic.

Ranking Member Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., concurred with her colleague across the aisle that there needs to be significant overhaul. Back in March Sienma and Lanford con-sponsored, along with Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., the Emergency Telework Act. The legislation required Federal agencies to allow all telework-eligible Federal employees to work remotely during the pandemic.

However, while there is bipartisan support for a massive overhaul of Federal telework policies, Congressional leaders do have concerns they want addressed before developing new policies. Largely, the concerns centered around cybersecurity, productivity, and making sure telework technologies and policies are cost-effective.

A primary concern for the government is always cybersecurity. Moving out of secure physical offices and int potentially insecure home networks, likely causes some sleepless nights for Federal IT pros.

Seán Morris, principal at Deloitte, offers some basic tips for Feds looking to strengthen cybersecurity. He said the government must invest in IT infrastructure, secure collaboration platforms, and remote diagnostic and management capabilities to “optimize virtual work and ensure that an on-demand pipeline of IT hardware and software is available to the workforce.” Additionally, training is essential. He said the government must “consider the human role in upholding cybersecurity.” To do so, Feds need clear cybersecurity procedures and sufficient training. There also needs to be cross-agency collaboration as cyber treats threats and vulnerabilities are identified. “Increased awareness only helps to strengthen the ecosystem,” he said.

Lane Wilson, senior vice president and general counsel at The Williams Companies, seconded Morris recommendations. He said his company did see a “slight increase” in malware, but noted that it was caught by their end-point protection software. He said there was a “more pronounced” increase in phishing emails, but not an increased employee click rate – he credited ongoing employee training for that success.

Amid the pandemic, Federal workers have been forced to be both a fulltime employee while also being a fulltime parent, and, at times, functioning as their child’s teacher. Under current telework policies, Federal workers cannot both telework and care for their children at the same time. While COVID-19 has forced agencies to ease up on that policy, feedback from the private sector may result in a permanent change in the updated policy.

“As long as you empower your managers and your employees to make decisions that work for their families but also allow them to work accomplish their work outcomes and those are clear for them, we find that our employees are very flexible with their own lives,” said Michael Ly, CEO of Reconciled. “They appreciate the flexibility that they’re being given. With the responsibility of being able to work from home, they take that seriously and they flex their own personal lives to be able to get their jobs done, as well as the needs of their families.”

Sen. Sinema specifically zeroed in on what is lost during telework – in-person camaraderie. She asked if any of the witnesess had found and deployed tools that enabled employees to collaborate and connect in ways that mimicked in-person interaction.

Reconciled, Ly explained, has begun holding “virtual lunchrooms,” where employees can enter a Zoom video call and have a chance to connect and check-in with their coworkers. In a move to bolster team connection and camaraderie, has moved team-building exercises online so a collaborative culture is still being fostered.

Kate Polit
About Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk's Assistant Copy & Production Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.

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