Updated return-to-work guidance is issued but, for Army agencies, embracing new norms is not one-size-fits-all.
BUSINESS AS (UN)USUAL: The White House Office of Management and Budget re-entry plan includes a substantial return to in-person work. The plan seeks to “strengthen and empower the federal workforce, deliver exceptional federal services and...
BUSINESS AS (UN)USUAL: The White House Office of Management and Budget re-entry plan includes a substantial return to in-person work. The plan seeks to “strengthen and empower the federal workforce, deliver exceptional federal services and customer experiences, and manage government business.” (Photo Credit: (Photo by Fauxels, Pexels)) VIEW ORIGINAL

Editor’s Note: This article is based on the latest guidance, released in April 2023, from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and the White House Office of Management and Budget.

For years, private industry has been luring top talent with starting bonuses, flexible work hours and, more recently, remote work. The federal government—while promoting job security and hands-on training—has shown hesitancy to accommodate remote, telework or flex-time options unless absolutely necessary and under specific conditions.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and most federal employees were sent home to work. Times are changing, and so is workplace policy.

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) got the ball rolling in 2021 with its updated “Guide to Telework and Remote Work in the Federal Government,” encouraging federal agencies to strategically leverage workplace flexibilities like remote work, telework and flexible work schedules as tools to help attract, recruit and retain the best possible workforce. A memorandum followed in March 2023, outlining a “vision for the future of the workforce that is inclusive, agile and engaged with the right skills to enable mission delivery,” and new remote and telework data elements (codes and data files) for agencies to gather enhanced data on employees to further provide them with insight.

With the global pandemic now in the rearview mirror, and new guidelines for remote work and telework in place, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), in April 2023, issued a “consistent plan” for a return to the office.

“Because the federal government is a vast organization, there is no one-size-fits-all approach,” OMB Deputy Director Jason Miller said in an April blog post. “However, as a whole it is important to establish overarching goals and benchmarks for consistency.” According to Miller, private sector employers across the country are undertaking the same type of assessments using lessons learned from the pandemic to improve their companies’ health and performance.

After three years of primarily communicating via electronic means, the workforce has grown used to what they’ve adapted as a “new normal.” Now, the federal government and its agencies are looking to settle into their version of a workplace new normal. But what will that look like?

OMB outlined in an April 13, 2023, memorandum that it would look like a substantial return to in-person work with new considerations for remote and telework. The plan seeks to “strengthen and empower the federal workforce, deliver exceptional federal services and customer experiences, and manage government business.”

In the memorandum, agencies are directed to develop updated “work environment plans” that describe current operational policies critical to improving organizational health and performance, while also conducting regular assessments to determine what is working well, what is not and what can be improved.

While that generally means a return to the traditional office for most, OMB also maintains that workplace flexibilities like remote work and telework will remain important tools for ensuring agencies can retain and compete for top talent in the marketplace, according to the new guidance.

Installations try to provide resources to help spouses find employment locally, but these positions typically do not develop into long-term careers. Telework has proved to be a valuable tool and a “life-changing opportunity” for employees who are military spouses or those with disabilities. (Photo Credit: (Photo by Scott Wakefield, U.S. Army Tank-automotive and Armaments Command))

Though telework has existed in the federal government since the 1992 Interagency Telecommuting Pilot Project, and more officially since the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 became law, it has not been widely incorporated as standard work procedure or used as an enticing accommodation during the hiring process. But, rather, it was used with a telework agreement as an alternative option for extenuating circumstances like severe weather events, travel, medical conditions or when an employee is still able to perform their duties but unable to report to their regular workstation.

As a consequence of COVID-19, the Army, like many private industry employers, had no choice but to turn to telework, forcing wider adoption and driving home the importance of a more robust telework program. But now in a post-pandemic world, most Army organizations, following the OPM guidelines, are looking at a return to the traditional workplace in some capacity—full time or hybrid—for civilians and Soldiers, regardless of their role.

“I think it’s case by case, and that is something that I’ve embraced, fought for and championed in meetings,” said Frank Gonzalez, director of the U.S. Army Acquisition Support Center’s (USAASC) Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accessibility Office. “And I think most of the leadership has kind of embraced that as the best balance: Look at our mission needs and then make decisions.”

Gonzalez believes whether it’s telework, remote or in-person work, a happy workforce comes up with better solution sets, and will actually work harder. “If this was in private sector, that essentially becomes more profitable for you,” he said. “We’re public sector, so we don’t look for profit as a federal government, but guess what? That happy workforce is looking to make things more efficient. They look for ideas to improve the workplace. That gives us value, and the more value we create, the more efficient we become.”

He said OPM’s latest guidance just reemphasizes the policies that existed pre-COVID, which defined telework as being present in the office twice per pay period, (once a week) and remote as not in the office. “That is what existed back when I joined the federal government as a civilian back in 2008, and that policy hasn’t really changed, because it boils down to the local agencies guidance,” Gonzalez said.

For example, he said, “the Army could make the formal declaration of no more than one day [in the office] per week with telework, which is within the scope of OPM’s guidelines.” But the Army hasn’t done that. Instead, it is leaving it to the discretion of each organization, and division or unit within each organization, to determine what will work best for each. “There’s no Army guidance or direction beyond the OPM standard. It is up to the supervisor and it’s based on your mission needs,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez, who works a hybrid schedule—in the office once a week—said he is definitely more productive working from home. “My customers are spread out. So working from my home office versus my [Fort Belvoir, Virginia] office, you know, quite honestly, it’s better.” Since he would have to use Microsoft Teams to communicate with those customers anyway, he said, there’s really no difference whether he’s working from home or the office. Except for maybe one thing. “My home office has a better internet connection, so I don’t have to deal with intermittent connectivity issues, especially if we’re using video,” he said. “On my team, there is one other member on a hybrid telework schedule in the Fort Belvoir area, and one working remotely in Florida. And, when I hire for my next position, I am open to either option for a good candidate.”

The hybrid arrangement works for him, he said, but it may not work for everyone. Especially those who live in very rural areas, or who don’t have a strong internet connection.

“Most divisions or branches have found that one day a week having the whole team coming in allows them to have meetings in person and be more effective, and not worry about connectivity issues,” he said. Employees working remotely “could save you some money on salary, but it doesn’t necessarily save you on travel costs. When you see them in person, you have to pay for that.”

Some leaders have the mentality that “they can see the person, therefore they must be working.” According to Gonzalez, this is not always the case. “I’ve been in offices where people are in the office, but they sure are not working.” He said there can be reduced productivity when workers are taking many breaks throughout the day, scrolling social media or stopping by someone else’s cubicle just to chat. Or, he said, the flip side of that is an increase in productivity if their organization requires routine in-person communication and meetings throughout the workweek.

So, he said, remote and telework versus in-person work depends on the person, their job and who they’re supporting. But “at the end of the day, the one day [in the office] per week is probably going to be common going forward based on mission needs as it provides that nice balance for those who prefer to see people in person versus those who don’t care if they’re at home or at the office or those who would rather be at home all the time. It’s a middle ground, I think.”


Both terms have been used independently and interchangeably to explain flexible work hours away from the office, but technically, they’re two different things, handled in different ways.

Based on OPM’s guidance, telework refers to an arrangement where the employee is expected to report to work both at an agency worksite and an alternative worksite on a regular and recurring basis each pay period, while remote work does not involve an expectation that the employee regularly report to the agency worksite each pay period.

Telework, in practice, allows employees to have regularly scheduled days on which they telework and regularly scheduled days when they work at their agency worksite. This includes any arrangement where an employee conducts work activities during any regular, paid hours, from an alternative location mutually agreeable to the employee and the agency (i.e., telework site, home).

Remote work is an arrangement that an agency, at its discretion, may choose if that arrangement is consistent with the agency’s needs and the duties of the given position. It may be initiated by the agency posting the position as one that will be performed remotely or by an employee requesting the privilege of working remotely. Requests would be granted on a case-by-case basis, as long as the remote work agreement accurately documents the employee’s worksite (to determine locality pay). And given budget implications, equity considerations and other factors, remote work policies would need to clearly outline the approval required to implement such an arrangement.

OPM’s guide and official Telework Hub provides agencies with resources and information to assist each in evaluating how to leverage these tools to meet mission-critical needs for their organizations and, at the same time, balance the needs of a changing workforce.A LOOK AT THE DATA (ELEMENTS)

OPM Director Kiran Ahuja said in a March 7 memorandum, “We have heard from the agencies, through ongoing re-entry [post-COVID-19 pandemic] support activities, that having more refined data related to telework and remote work will assist in evaluating how employee work arrangements are impacting key workforce considerations—such as productivity, recruitment and retention—that are critical to successful organizational performance.”

The refined data would be obtained using three new data elements (codes and datafiles) that agencies and shared service providers would be required to code for each employee for Enterprise Human Resources Integration (EHRI), which, according to the memorandum, will provide a deeper level of detail for understanding workforce characteristics. EHRI is one of five OPM-led e-government initiatives designed to leverage the benefits of information technology responsible for maintaining the integrity of the electronic official personnel folder, which protects the information rights, benefits and entitlements of federal workers.

Once applied, the new data elements would “improve government-wide reporting of federal employee participation in remote work, telework and mobile work, and will enable OPM to evaluate trends and determine how such work arrangements might advance the accomplishment of mission critical requirements and organizational effectiveness,” according to the memorandum.

Some agencies and commands have already begun aligning with OPM’s new guidelines in determining remote work and telework best practices for their organization and workforce, while others are still in the early stages of remote and telework policy analysis. Implementation won’t be universal, as each agency weighs which jobs can be done remotely or on a flexible schedule and which cannot, and then assesses the best ways to complement current policy with updated revisions.

“The [OPM] data elements were developed mainly to cover existing gaps in our timekeeping and personnel databases that have become more evident as the definition of remote work changed [it used to be a form of telework] and more personnel are authorized to use it,” said Joel Stringer, assistant deputy for civilian personnel, Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civilian Personnel.

Stringer, whose office advises senior leaders on all matters relating to human resources and life cycle management for the Army civilian workforce, said that the EHRI data element changes described in the March 7 OPM memo must be done at the DOD level (not Army) as systems modifications to the Defense Civilian Personnel Data System and Defense Civilian Payroll System. “DOD components will be notified when the new remote work fields are available, along with instructions for how they are to be used.”

According to Stringer, the current posture on remote work and telework is that Army commanders and heads of executive departments and agencies are still authorized and encouraged to use telework and remote work as workplace flexibilities to help employees maintain work-life balance, to the extent they can do so while meeting mission requirements.


Today’s military career looks a lot different than in generations past, as service members face location-based challenges like spousal unemployment, high cost of living and availability of child care. Although work opportunities for service members are now available that aren’t location-based (see “The Army Goes Location Independent” in the Summer 2023 issue of Army AL&T) the Army still follows an outdated and arbitrary personnel system that does not accommodate the growing number of dual-income households, dual-military families, women in the workplace, and married men and women serving on active duty—norms that have changed dramatically in the last 50-plus years, alongside a hiring and recruiting system that has not.

A DOD survey of active-duty spouses, conducted by DOD’s Office of People Analytics in 2021 to quantify the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on military spouses and families, showed that the percentage of spouses satisfied with the military way of life (citing reasons like unemployment, high cost of living and lack of affordable child care) has steadily declined since 2012. According to the survey, overall dissatisfaction with the military way of life increased the odds by seven and a half (nearly eight times) that a spouse favored their husband or wife leaving active duty.

Telework has proved to be a valuable tool and a “life-changing opportunity” for employees who are military spouses or those with disabilities, according to OPM’s guide. Military spouses often struggle to maintain a career because of frequent moves, but remote work has enabled some to support their military partners and keep up with family expenses.

Ahuja, the OPM director, said at a March 9 congressional hearing, “Telework and remote work flexibilities also enhance the federal government’s ability to attract and consider a more diverse talent pool across the country, including military spouses, residents of rural areas and individuals with disabilities.”

In assessing job announcements posted on the USAJobs portal between June and October 2022, Ahuja said remote job opportunity announcements received, on average, 17 times more applications than nonremote jobs, significantly more (approximately 25) military spouse applications for remote work positions compared to one or two for nonremote jobs—showing increased interest due to job portability. The assessment also showed a higher percentage of female and minority candidates as compared with nonremote postings and a greater geographic diversity, with applications from candidates in 37 different states, as compared with just seven states for nonremote postings.

Private industry has kept the pace with changing family and workplace norms and offers hiring incentives like higher wages, flexible work schedules, remote work and telework arrangements, and wellness reimbursements. The Army, meanwhile, has retained a culture of reliance on traditional time-tested approaches. Strategies like increased enlisted bonuses, reduced entry requirements (high school diplomas and test scores), additional recruiters and new marketing approaches have all worked in the past, but as demonstrated in the last few years, relying on these approaches is insufficient for addressing current military and civilian recruiting challenges.

Workplace flexibilities like remote work, telework and flex time ensure that employers stay competitive in a tight candidate market and put themselves in a position to attract talented professionals—who may actually reject job offers that don’t allow a work-from-home option. (Photo Credit: (Image by USAASC))

Remote work may be a little bit newer to the Department of Defense and the Army, as they are still trying to figure out what that looks like and what types of jobs should be remote. Not every job can be done remotely, so, as Gonzalez said, it’s really about determining what the best needs for each organization are.

COVID forced remote work and telework on a large scale, but once all the health protection conditions started going back to what they were before the pandemic, many government organizations tried to go back to the same work arrangements, soon realizing that the competition for talent acquisition had changed. So they needed to become a little bit more responsive in order to stay within the competition for that talent.

Army Contracting Command (ACC) is one organization where, pre-COVID, almost no one was remote. Post pandemic, ACC Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, started using remote work as a way to attract better talent to the organization. ACC’s established telework program, according to its website, “allows greater work-life integration, reduces transportation costs and vehicle wear and tear, helps the environment and saves time otherwise spent commuting.” Positions with flexible work hours, aligned with OPM, are offered with core work hours designated to allow for flexible start and stop times as an alternative to the traditional 9-to-5, 40-hour workweek.

Another organization applying a more flexible “work from anywhere” approach is the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command (DEVCOM), which has been working under a different work model since March 2020. (See “The Future of Work—Living The Experiment,” in the Spring 2023 issue of Army AL&T.)

According to DEVCOM’s “Future of Work Concept,” remote work and telework provide individuals with greater flexibility, increased opportunities, enhanced quality of life and improved financial posture. Organizations benefit from improved employee morale, productivity and engagement, access to a broader and more diverse talent pool, and reduced infrastructure and environmental footprint and costs.

DEVCOM’s future objectives significantly contrast its past and current work models. Currently, the best (local) talent would work at an official duty location with locally defined “core hours” and discrete teams, operating within the constraints of the organization’s boundaries. The future model evolves to one where the best talent, local or not, can work where they are most productive in agile, cross-competency/cross-organization teams rapidly formed to deliver integrated solutions. “To maximize our potential and impact, our command must embrace a future of work environment that is different from the past,” DEVCOM’s “Future of Work Concept” states. “Flexibility in implementation is essential.”


After settling into a three-year remote, telework and hybrid routine, a return to the office may not be the direction federal employees had hoped for. But with the new remote work and telework guidance and ongoing work environment plans and assessments, the workday in the “new normal” could vary from agency to agency, potentially offering more flexibility (than before) to accommodate Army commands and the workforce. It could also help leaders identify, attract and retain high-performing individuals to serve in both military and civilian career fields as new considerations to traditional hiring practices, societal norms and work-life balance are addressed.

For more information, go to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s official hub for the federal government’s telework program at https://www.opm.gov/telework.

CHERYL MARINO provides contract support to the U.S. Army Acquisition Support Center at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, as a writer and editor for Army AL&T magazine and Network Runners Inc. Before USAASC, she served as a technical report editor at the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Center at Picatinny Arsenal, New Jersey, for five years. She holds a B.A. in communications from Seton Hall University and has more than 20 years of writing and editing experience in both the government and private sectors.

Read the full article in the Winter 2023 issue of Army AL&T magazine.

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