If you’re one of the millions of Federal workers who started working from home during COVID, you might have felt (unpleasantly) surprised by that State of the Union speech in which the President said that “The vast majority of Federal workers will once again work in person.” Is the White House taking your telework away? In short: no. A new Department of Defense memo weighs in on the subject, and its wording offers proof that telework is–to some degree, at least–here to stay.

“Throughout the pandemic, we learned a lot about how we can embrace telework and flexible schedules to achieve new efficiencies in the workplace,” reads the memo, which was written by Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks and released March 16. “We will continue to embrace successful practices to promote a more resilient and productive workforce that can attract new talent and retain our top performers.”

She wrote that DoD divisions and agencies will have the flexibility to keep some amount of telework in place, if they choose. There will not be a “one-size-fits-all” plan on returning to work, she added, emphasizing that the Pentagon’s return to normal will not be a total return to the way things were done pre-COVID.

Telework Past, Present, and Future

Limited teleworking–i.e., a day or two a week–was a perk that some federal agencies were offering to some of their employees pre-COVID. The limits came right off once the pandemic took hold, and Federal offices everywhere emptied out under new “maximum telework” directives. Suddenly, it became normal to work three or four days a week at home. Or even five. Some employees went two years straight without seeing the insides of their cubicles.

Those days are coming to an end. Last fall, non-DoD agencies such as the Social Security Administration (SSA), Department of Justice (DOJ), and Department of Agriculture (USDA) drew up “workforce safety plans” for reining max telework in and incrementally bringing work back to the office. The SSA, for instance, issued a plan to reopen all its offices with regular office hours by March 30 of this year (note: It’s been pushed back to May, because of lingering worries about the latest COVID variant).

The White House not only supported such plans, it decided that they should be the standard for the whole government. In this context, the President told the nation in his speech that he wants the Federal workforce to return to “in person” work.

Curbing Telework, Not Quitting It

But how much work should Federal employees do in person? All of it? The President didn’t say that. The words “in the office, every day” never escaped his lips.

And even if they had, let’s remember that this was a speech, not an executive order. Federal agencies are not under any legal obligation to ditch telework as of now. And judging by their workforce safety plans, they aren’t. Most of these documents leave the door open to at least some amount of continued teleworking.

The SSA’s plan, for example, states that any employee who teleworked during the pandemic will still be eligible for at least “episodic” telework—so maybe a day or two per week at home, versus all five. Negotiations on the issue are still ongoing with the employee unions, so more clarity (and more telework) may yet be offered up.

The DOJ’s plan, revamped in February, urges Justice offices to “build on their successful experiences during the department’s ‘maximum telework’ posture during the pandemic” and “provide broader access to telework and other worksite and scheduling flexibilities to employees.” And while the USDA’s plan calls for a “full-fledged return to the workplace for all USDA employees,” that same plan instructs office leadership to “identify positions that can be effectively performed remotely.”

The wording’s ambiguous, in all three cases. But we can say for sure that telework is a matter of keen interest, for the employees and for the agencies who employ them. Millions of workers have come to expect generous work-at-home arrangements over the last two years, and few will be inclined to completely give them up.

Agency leaders know this. And they know that telework isn’t just a perk in the Federal Government. More than a third of private-sector employers increased telework during the pandemic, and the vast majority of those employers expect to keep it, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics survey.

Which means: If Federal workers aren’t getting the telework they want in their current jobs, they might be all the more easily enticed to go find it at new jobs in private business.

Federal agencies have to think about workforce retention. If federal agencies want their own workers to stay, then they’ll have to offer them enough benefits to make staying worthwhile, and that includes a comparable amount of freedom to telework.


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Rick Docksai is a Department of Defense writer-editor who covers defense, public policy, and science and technology news. He earned a Master's Degree in Journalism from the University of Maryland in 2007.