April 2020. We were entering the height of the COVID pandemic. Vaccines were not yet available and everyone who could, began to work from home. We noted at the time that this massive change would tax our organizations and our personnel severely. We expected that areas of stress would include challenges due to face-to-face supervision being reduced or eliminated; increased effort to access and use information; reduced non-verbal communication resulting in the need to craft precise emails and texts conveying proper tone and content; increased phone conferences; and far less social interaction.
We also speculated back in 2020, that having made the transition to move so many jobs out of the office, organizations might decide to keep working remotely once the COVID threat subsided. Two Government studies support this prediction. The first of these was conducted by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) in December 2021. Among their findings:
- 90 percent of federal workers did at least some remote work during fiscal year 2020 – a one-third increase over 2019, our last pre-pandemic year.
To be a part of the 90 percent a federal employee need only have worked remotely occasionally – a typical pre-COVID practice. Which leads us to the second study done by the General Accounting Office (GAO) in February 2022. Their review covering 24 major federal agencies included findings that:
- 80 percent of overall work was being done remotely across the studied agencies.
- It was common for a federal office to have more than 25 percent of its staff working remotely on an exclusive basis.
- Three different heads of large federal agencies–Office of Management and Budget, Office of Personnel Management, along with the GAO, say that the workforce has demonstrated resiliency in performing their duties. They call for evaluation of employee performance to be based on quality of work, rather than the location in which that work is performed.
- Furthermore, there are significant cost savings associated with remote work. Departments that cover transit costs were able shed a considerable part of that financial burden. Utility costs dropped. More employees working remotely created opportunities to reduce office space. The Department of Education, for example, saved over $3 million on transit costs alone.
Eighty-five percent of federal employees surveyed say working from home benefitted their quality of life. Among these benefits, over three-quarters of the surveyed employees believe their productivity is better when they work at home. Even higher numbers say they took the extra time they gained by not having to commute to learn new skills. Nearly 70 percent of federal employees say there was no difference between working remotely or being in-person.
That’s not to say there aren’t perceived advantages from going into the office. The work environment creates a structure and routine that nearly 40 percent of federal employees consider more productive. Similar numbers said accessing important technology was easier at the office and almost 30 percent liked being visible to their supervisors.
From these studies, one can infer that we are still in a state of transition from the world of work as we knew it in 2019. However, it does seem that neither the Government nor the private sector are likely to accept a return to pre-pandemic ways of doing business. The remote workplace has been shown to be a proven, cost-effective, appealing option for both employer and employees. It’s here to stay and we can expect further growth in remote work in the years to come.