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Washington is shunning remote work, and we’re all losing

AP Photo/Susan Walsh
President Joe Biden speaks as he meets with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Friday, March 3, 2023.

Recent layoffs at major tech companies pose a tremendous opportunity for the federal government: to bring much-needed talent into the workforce.

Government has long lamented its inability to compete with the private sector on white collar roles requiring specialty expertise, from human resources and communications to information technology. Suddenly, large swaths of experienced workers are out of work and looking for new opportunities. And federal government officials are extremely keen to hire them.

There’s just one problem: geography. Laid off workers are overwhelmingly based on the West Coast, and many government jobs are not.

I run a training program that aims to place strong technical candidates in government roles. Yet hiring managers have regularly laughed at me when I ask themabout remote work options. One said that the boss just didn’t allow it. Another told me that it might be okay to work from home a few days a week, so long as the candidate could pay for the cross-country commute. 

This is no accident; the Biden administration is trying to lead by example by pulling people back into the office. I’ve been told that it is extremely difficult to receive permission to work remotely, and some workers that were hired remote are being pushed to move to Washington. Some are quitting or turning down great job offers as a result. 

In 2019, I would have expected this response. Yet for much of the past three years, large numbers of federal employees were themselves remote workers during the pandemic. 

Remote work benefits our federal government, our workforce morale, and our country. It is only a certain type of white-collar worker — usually young, single, open to living in an urban area, and independently well-off or willing to stomach a long commute — who can afford to relocate for a federal government job. By limiting the candidate pool for these positions to in-person work, despite all the lessons we learned in the pandemic, we’re missing a unique opportunity to get the truly diverse, highly skilled federal workforce we all deserve.

Arguments in favor of in-person work generally fall into three camps. The first is about productivity: Managers have a visceral sense that workers are more productive in the office. The second is about people: Teams work better together in person than they do remotely. Finally, in-person work is about places: It’s about the investments already made in office workspaces and the need — sometimes for national security reasons — to work in those offices.

On how remote work affects productivity, evidence demonstrates that workers generally are more productive at home than they are at the office. Moreover, while there are concerns that productivity is dropping, studies suggest that the return to office — not working from home — may be causing that drop. Employees who feel empowered and trusted by their employer — like remote workers — tend to be more productive. Of course, an unproductive worker will not become productive just because they relocate to a home office. But keeping that worker in an office space will not make them more productive either.

As for the camaraderie that comes from in-person work, it is true that working together in person helps build workplace rapport and smooths conflicts. But those benefits do not require daily interactions; they can occur so long as you prioritize occasionally getting together. My current team works remotely much of the time — but we also meet several times a year in person, including for several weeks at a time. So long as we have that in-person time, it is easy to feel strong camaraderie on Zoom.

On the need for physical spaces, some jobs do indeed have to be performed in person. But the vast majority of political appointments and many civil service jobs have the privilege to work from anywhere. Many white-collar jobs have been remote for years: You are on a computer and in Zoom meetings all day. Even national security sensitive positions can function remotely so long as the employee has access to a sensitive compartmented information facility (SCIF) in their location. This is not novel; even before the pandemic, those in national security positions had to navigate remote work challenges when they traveled. 

At the same time, there are real tradeoffs to requiring federal government employees to relocate for computer-based jobs. Not least, it harms diversity, limiting hiring to the subset of people willing to move to the Washington, D.C. area. What about those who prefer to live in rural communities, or who have family obligations which prevent relocating? We all benefit if the federal workforce is as geographically diverse as our country is.

Moreover, such a policy discriminates against those with limited financial means. The high cost of living in the Beltway (which is worsening as interest rates rise) combined with the low relative wage of most government jobs mean many jobseekers either need significant financial resources or a second income to support relocation. This is particularly problematic for single parents and two-income families, as it can be hard to find jobs for both partners in the same location.

Remote work is not for everyone, and those who want to relocate or go into the office should be welcomed, even encouraged.

But if we are serious about the future of a diverse government that works for all people, we need voices from all walks of life and from all across the country contributing to public service.

Many of the recently laid off workers want to serve their country — but they also want their spouse to keep the career they value. They want to spend time with their children, not on a long commute. And they want to be able to work in government and still save money for college and an eventual retirement.

It’s hard enough to make government work effectively. Let’s stop making it harder by limiting who can serve.

Betsy Cooper is the director of the Aspen Institute’s Tech Policy Hub. Follow her on Twitter @BetsOnTech

Tags biden administration commute federal workforce in-person work remote work Remote working return to office talent tech industry Tech layoffs telework teleworking Washington, D.C. workforce

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