Jun 15, 2022 - News

The feds slowly return to their D.C. offices

Illustration of an office chair moving from left to right, but slowing down and reversing before it gets all the way across the screen.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

The move away from full-time remote work is gaining momentum in Washington as the “vast majority” of federal workers head back to their desks, according to an Office of Management and Budget spokesperson.

Why it matters: Even on hybrid schedules, federal workers heading back to the office will benefit nearby businesses that have missed their main customer base of office workers, but any loss of flexibility could further lower morale among federal employees.

What’s happening: Thousands of federal workers are coming into the office for at least part of the week, and some agencies will even have in-person interns this summer. Here's how a few agencies are approaching the shift back to in-person work:

  • EPA: Aside from employees with full-time remote schedules (less than 10%), all employees have “physically increased their presence in the workplace," an EPA spokesperson tells Axios.
  • Treasury: More than 2,000 local employees have been working in person since at least last month (the transition back started in March).  
  • VA: The agency’s 11,000 D.C.-area employees moved away from maximum telework schedules in March. Exact schedules vary based on supervisor/collective bargaining agreements. 
  • DOE: Energy Department employee schedules vary. A spokesperson tells Axios that “offices have determined the appropriate level of staffing on-site and hybrid depending on mission requirements.” 
  • ATF: Most employees who work in the agency’s headquarters returned to some level of in-person work in April, though telework options are still available depending on the position.
  • DOI: The department’s roughly 6,000 D.C.-area employees are in the office full time, part-time (at least two days per pay period), or fully remote.
  • DOL: Labor offices started allowing full office occupancy on May 2. Employees are working with their individual supervisors to determine how often they work remotely. 

Some agencies have been slower to implement the return to the office. At GAO, most employees aren’t required to work in person and have the option to work remotely as they please. Similarly, SEC employees can return to the office on a voluntary basis.

Yes, but: The frequency of federal employees’ in-person work schedules varies widely and is often determined by department heads or supervisors. 

  • The Justice Department, for example, has some lawyers coming into the office twice every two weeks, while others are told to come in four days every two weeks.
  • Anecdotally, Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, says more senior-level federal workers are coming into the office compared to junior-level employees because they have fewer individual tasks and more “cross-organizational responsibilities.”

Between the lines: As it continues to compete with the private sector, the federal government should be thoughtful when determining how and if it should bring employees back to the office, Stier tells Axios. 

  • Stier says a September 2021 survey of federal employees showed that morale among workers went down compared to the beginning of the pandemic. 

“The federal government has big challenges in competing for talent, and to push for a pre-pandemic world of more people working in-office is going to do real damage to the morale and the effectiveness of the federal workforce,” he says.


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