DETROIT ARSENAL, Mich. — It’s been almost two years to the day since the Office of Personnel Management made temporary changes to the telework policy due to the COVID-19 pandemic. These changes allowed leaders across the federal government more flexibility to protect their workforce while continuing to accomplish their mission.
The “lockdown” was initiated as an immediate step to allow 100% of the workforce to telework to mitigate the spread of the virus. Bringing employees back to the workplace won’t be as straightforward.
According to Brian Butler, deputy to the commander U.S. Army Tank-automotive and Armaments Command, there’s a mandate that requires the command to give at least 30 days’ notice for their “Return to the Workplace” plan.
“We’ve decided to err on the side of the employee and extend that even further,” said Butler. “The main reason for the extension is to alleviate the general feeling of anxiety that a lot of our workforce still feels.”
TACOM’s leadership has been working with front line supervisors in developing a phased approach to bring back mission essential personnel to the arsenal to accomplish tasks that are impossible or more difficult to accomplish through telework.
In the second phase which began April 14, supervisors were required to return to the installation to evaluate the workspace and ensure that proper cleaning and accommodations are being maintained for a safe environment. Supervisors can then direct employees that are essential in maintaining mission to return after another 30-day period.
Butler stated that “we want to do this very deliberately, because people have altered their lives and it may be more difficult for them to return to a pre-COVID work situation.”
One specific area that Butler says is a concern for many TACOM employees is childcare. Many facilities and childcare providers that existed two years are not available today.
“We want to make sure that not only our employee, but their home situation is addressed in making decisions to bring them back,” said Butler. “It’s important for supervisors and employees to communicate so they can better understand the situation.”
Moreover, Butler sees that keeping as much of the TACOM workforce on telework is a benefit for both the organization and the employee. It’s a benefit for TACOM because it reduces many operating costs with a reduced workforce on the installation, and for the employee it provides for morale, resiliency, and in some cases some financial relief with fuel savings.
He also stated that although telework is a benefit, it is not an entitlement, and the mission will dictate whether an employee can remain on 100% telework, or if they may be required to work from the installation occasionally.
“Most of our employees are very effective at working remotely,” said Butler.
He also cautions that there are downsides to full time telework such as a breakdown in unit cohesion.
“There are some employees that have never met their teams face-to-face,” said Butler. “I think you can lose some things as much as you gain others with full time telework. That’s why we’ve left it up to supervisors to make the decision on bringing them back.”
Currently, the OPM guidelines of 100% telework has been extended until September 30. However, TACOM supervisors have authority to require members to come into the workplace after they’ve been given 30 days’ notice. This means that some employees could be returning to the Detroit Arsenal as early as May 31.
Once the OPM telework guidelines expire, or have been rescinded, TACOM will revert to its newly updated official telework policy which allows supervisors better flexibility to allow longer term telework than the old TACOM policy. This would mean that employees would work from the arsenal at least one day per week at minimum but could be required to work more days per week depending on mission, falling in line with original OPM telework guidelines.
“Altering the current telework policy can be stressful, it’s a very big change,” stated Butler. “We will continue to maximize telework as much as we can within OPM guidelines.”
One major change in TACOM’s new telework policy is that it requires a two-level approval or disapproval on telework agreements.
“With two supervisors being able to look at the situation to better understand the mission requirement, it should be a clearer decision to bring an employee back to the workplace, or allow them to continue to work from home,” said Butler. “We have to empower our first- and second-line supervisors with the capability to make these decisions without micro-managing them and maximize their capabilities.”
Along with the two-supervisor approval or disapproval, they must also provide a written reason for their decision, making it clearer why a decision was made.
Finally, Butler states that each employee’s requirements for returning to the workplace will be different depending on the mission. One person’s ability to continue full-time telework doesn’t necessarily equate to successfully disputing the supervisory chains reason for having a worker return to the arsenal.