The Unsettled Status of Remote Work in 2020

Every major trend line shows that remote work allows employees to be more productive and employers to save money. So why is the federal government having everyone come back into the office? And should you consider the same?

Telework, or remote work, has a complicated reputation in the modern age.

Well-established companies—for example, the digital publication Ars Technica and the tech firm Automattic—have functioned effectively for years without having much in the way of actual offices. This is in part thanks to improvements in collaborative tools that have made the technology more accessible than ever.

But those with a more old-school mindset might see things differently. A case in point is the federal government, where a robust push toward telework during the Obama administration is now being rolled back under President Donald Trump, as leaders who like to see their employees in the office have taken charge.

“The about-face began at the Agriculture Department in 2018, after Secretary Sonny Perdue was angry to discover that an employee he needed to meet with was working from home, according to three administration officials,” The Washington Post reported last month. “In response, he slashed by half a robust program used by tens of thousands of employees.”

Since then, numerous other agencies have followed suit—even though, as Forbes contributor Laurel Farrer noted, the telework program has been, according to the federal government’s own Status of Telework in the Federal Government reports, very successful.

“Retracting federal telework policies may cause irreversible damage to the accessibility, efficacy, and sustainability of government jobs, not to mention the ripple effects in the rest of the state agencies and national workforce,” Farrer wrote.

If the federal government is going that way, most other employers are not—at least not yet. Speaking to Ars Technica recently, Society for Human Resource Management President and CEO Johnny C. Taylor said today’s labor market greatly favors employees, and the option to work from home is an employee-friendly offering.

“The advantages [of telework] are many,” Taylor said. “It’s a good thing for several reasons from the employer’s perspective in a very tight labor market.”

And new factors might force the government’s hand (and yours) anyway. While the Wuhan coronavirus hasn’t made major inroads in the U.S., it has begun to affect how federal agencies are thinking about telework. According to Federal News Network, agencies are being encouraged by the Office of Personnel Management’s Chief Human Capital Officers Council to have a plan that allows employees to work remotely if a need to contain the spread of the virus arises.

Additionally, some cities—such as the spread-out Atlanta—have grown into telework hubs essentially as a way to work around awkward commutes.

Maybe your association’s management likes to keep people in the cubicles to ensure work is getting done, or maybe not. But the fact that the federal government is grappling with this issue anew reflects that it may be a while before the status of telework is settled.

(lechatnoir/E+/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!