A SHOT IN THE ARMP: Spc. Cassandra Acosta, a combat medic at Fort Stewart, Georgia, administers a COVID vaccine to a patient in a community vaccination event in April. Vaccinations will be an important part of the Army’s plans to bring employees back to the office. (Photo by Spc. Robert P Wormley, III/50th Public Affairs Detachment)
Over a year into quarantine-imposed telework, the vision of the future office begins to emerge.
by Jacqueline M. Hames
After more than a year of working from home, we’ve hit an equilibrium. Sure, there are bad days where the technology isn’t working, the pets are feeling particularly needy, the kids are stir crazy—the adults are stir crazy—but otherwise we have it figured out. Some might even say they have become more productive, now. It’s the new normal.
But as with anything in life, the moment you get used to a particular situation, it changes again. The COVID-19 quarantine is no different. The more vaccinations administered, the more businesses are opening, the more people are returning to life out in public. The question many are asking now is: When do we go back to the office?
A TRICKY QUESTION
At this writing, the answer to the question of “when” is nebulous, at best. Many things will contribute to the Army workforce’s return to the office plans, said Yolanda Compton, G-1 (personnel) civilian human resources branch chief at the U.S. Army Acquisition Support Center (USAASC). Returning to the office is a complex, nuanced endeavor that encompasses a range of factors, from scientific findings on the COVID-19 vaccine to the preference of an individual employee. Compton attended the U.S. Army Manpower and Reserve Affairs Virtual Work Option Meeting on April 20, along with human resource representatives from all across the Army, to explore all those potential factors. The meeting “was a think tank for various Army commands at various levels. What they were looking at was the reentry plan and how telework was going to play a permanent role in that,” she said. The Army won’t implement any new telework policies before DOD provides guidance in accordance with the Office of Personnel Management, she explained, but the existing policies cover most of the current needs.
“Right now, Army’s telework policies mirror what DOD’s telework policy says, and it’s very loose fitted, for the purpose of allowing various commands and departments to take it, tailor it down, and make it fit according to what their mission is really going to entail,” Compton said. That means that organizational directors or commanders can implement telework guidance at their discretion and tailor it to their mission needs—particularly during a return to the office transition period.
DEVIL IN THE DETAILS
Under current policies, there are two major categories of telework: Regular, reoccurring telework, which occurs as part of a regular schedule, and situational telework, which isn’t scheduled and is approved on a case-by-case basis, Compton explained. All other types of telework are subcategories of the former. The nuances within these subcategories are what people will need to be aware of as organizations decide what the office reentry plan will look like, Compton said. It’s important to remember: “You’re paid according to where you work, not where you live,” she said.
For example, many people are interested in the idea of remote telework—a flexible work arrangement in which an employee works most or all of the time from a different geographic area than the duty location. In remote telework, the policy states that an employee should go into the office two times a pay period, Compton explained. Because of that, the employee is still eligible for the locality pay at that duty location. If the employee is not required to come into the office twice a pay period, but is still required to report to an alternate designated duty location within the locality region—like the National Capital Region—the employee is still eligible for locality pay within that region.
While not as likely, if the employee’s work agreement does not require them to report to the office or other alternate sites within the duty station’s locality region twice a pay period, he or she is no longer eligible for locality pay in that region. If this situation is approved, the duty station and the worksite become one and the employee is eligible for locality pay in the applicable region. Required trips to the main worksite are considered official business and the employee can receive travel reimbursement. In other words, if your duty location is on Fort Belvoir, Virginia, but you’ve moved, with supervisory approval, to Atlanta, and don’t plan to come into the office twice a pay period, you will receive locality pay for the Atlanta region as well as be reimbursed for travel if you are required to come to Fort Belvoir once a quarter.
|Need to know more about current telework policies? Check out these helpful resources:
· Office of Personnel Management Telework Guide: https://go.usa.gov/xH6jw.
· Travel guidance: https://go.usa.gov/xH6j7.
· Locality pay charts: https://go.usa.gov/xH6jA.
· Determining an Employee’s official worksite: https://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/5/531.605.
· U.S. General Services Administration Handbook for Relocating Federal Employees: https://go.usa.gov/xH6jH.
· U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission on Telework and Work at Home: www.eeoc.gov/facts/telework.html.
Currently, about 97 percent of the Army’s civilian workforce is teleworking and “there are some cost savings that [the Army] is celebrating,” Compton said. The Army is saving money on the lights being off, on water bills from lack use, on heating and cooling offices—all kinds of things. If telework is incorporated permanently into a return to work plan, the Army can continue these savings through personnel “hoteling”—many people sharing one desk space on a rotation. Using office space this way will also allow for proper social distancing until COVID-19 restrictions ease.
“The Army is also looking at this initiative as an excellent way of retaining highly skilled professionals,” Compton said. A large part of the workforce is eligible for retirement, and there is a concern that when people return to the office there will be a mass exodus, she said. Employees near retirement have grown accustomed to sustained telework over the last year or so, “and would rather just retire than to endure the pains of commuting, mass transit, and not to mention, wearing dress shoes again,” she said. The Army hopes that telework flexibilities will help retain its highly skilled workforce and allow for a successful transition of skills and knowledge.
The Army is also analyzing which positions may be reclassified as exclusively virtual and how best to do that, Compton said. Discussions during the Virtual Work Option Meeting covered various topics, including how to deal with conduct and performance issues in a remote telework environment. “Other topics were relative to natural attrition. [The Army] is looking at what effect virtual work programs will have on normal workforce transitions. Sometimes people vacate positions because seasons in life change, i.e., your military husband has to [move]—but now he [moves] and you get to keep your job; what happens then regarding the natural turnover? We want to minimize the loss of talents and skills; however, we also do not want to block opportunities for new thought and innovation.”
One thing the Army is not currently considering is allowing a domestic employee to remotely telework from overseas, she said. So if you thought about moving to the Greek Isles—or your spouse was assigned there—and you want to keep your state-side job through telework, think again. That’s not currently on the table.
One thing will likely remain the same, even if there are new telework policies in the future: “The decisions remain with organizational leaders. Army elects to allow commanders, principal officials and directors to retain the autonomy to manage the workforce under their purview,” Compton said. “If their mission is such that they are working directly with the warfighter, 100 percent of their people might have to be in the office.” In other words, telework won’t be driven by a minimum or maximum percentage of participating employees, but rather by what that commander or director knows the workforce needs to get the job done, she explained. The new-normal Army office spaces will be likely be a hybrid of on-site work and telework.
WHAT ABOUT USAASC?
At the time of this writing, there was no change in the return-to-the-office status at headquarters USAASC—everything remained status quo. “We need to proceed cautiously,” Compton said, and do our due diligence as a workforce. That means fully vaccinated individuals—doses one and two for two-dose vaccines—can do most of the things they did prior to the pandemic without a mask or physical distancing, unless otherwise mandated, like in a work environment. Unvaccinated or half-vaccinated individuals should continue to wear masks and socially distance.” Craig Spisak, director of USAASC, is also considering official guidelines from the CDC about vaccinations and their efficacy over an extended period. For example, can you be fully vaccinated and still carry COVID-19 asymptomatically? “There are just so many unknown variables, and I appreciate the fact that he [Spisak] is proceeding with caution [and] with the care of the organization at the forefront,” Compton said. She also cautions that though USAASC is essentially teleworking until told otherwise, things could change rapidly based on leadership decisions and scientific guidelines.
The pandemic has proven that the old government philosophy of “if I cannot see you, you are not working” is grossly wrong, Compton said. If leaders encounter conduct or performance issues, they should deal with them head on, in much the same way they would if face-to-face and on an individual basis. She recommends that Army leaders become fully knowledgeable on the overall benefits of virtual work options.
No matter what happens, it appears the Army will be embracing telework more fully in the future—so if you’ve been eyeballing a new desk or chair for the home office, go ahead and get it.