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How should agencies treat remote employees?

On Behalf of | Aug 19, 2022 | Firm News

The pandemic saw a sudden surge in remote work. Offices and agencies that had always expected employees to work on-site were suddenly allowing them to work from home. And a recent survey suggests that may have been a good thing.

As the Government Executive reports, data from Eagle Hill Consulting shows that remote employees showed greater performance improvement than their peers in the office. They feel more committed and supported. And they feel their managers trust them to get their work done.

The telework experience varies from agency to agency

Unfortunately, federal employees have not all enjoyed the same positive experiences for their remote work. Other experiences have reminded us that while remote work can offer many advantages, there are potential downsides, as well. Especially when a supervisor or agency doesn’t trust its employees.

For all the flexibility that remote work can offer, it also presents challenges to distrustful supervisors. If employees aren’t sitting at their office desks, how can their supervisors know they’re working? This seems to be the question central to one of the greater remote work horror stories.

In the fall of 2021, the Social Security Administration’s inspector general office inspected its employees’ computer logs and telephone records. As a result of the investigation, the department disciplined roughly two-dozen employees. Some were even fired.

The agency’s version is only one part of the story

Agencies had to adjust quickly to remote work just as much as employees did. However, it’s hard to argue that the SSA IG’s office took the best approach.

The federal government generally reports that remote work leads to an increase in productivity. And Eagle Hill Consulting reports that most remote workers feel greater personal pressure to get their work done. By contrast, the Government Executive reports that employees said the SSA IG’s office became “dysfunctional, derogatory and demeaning.” Workers toiled under threats and had to send log-in and log-out emails to their supervisors.

Despite these circumstances, the office continued to open cases, make arrests and obtain convictions. And there were other reasons to question the appropriateness of the discipline. As one union president noted, the employees did not confine their work to their computers. Many could have been conducting field work that their computer logs would not have recorded.

There’s a reason the Merit Systems Protection Board exists

When one department appears to handle remote workers so differently from the rest of the federal government, there’s reason for employees to doubt the discipline is fair. One of the benefits of working for the government is that employees have the option to respond to—and challenge—unjust disciplinary actions.

Individual agencies can implement their own policies, but all agencies must adhere to the same key principles. When one agency introduces policies rooted in distrust and discipline that flows from bad information, its employees can take their cases to the Merit Systems Protection Board.


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