OPM director says telework flexibility needed so agencies can compete for talent

Director of U.S. Office of Personnel Management Kiran Ahuja speaks during a roundtable with U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, and federal workers, appearing virtually, in the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on October 20, 2021 in Washington, DC. The roundtable was held for participants to discuss labor unions representing employees who work for federal government. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

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Federal agencies are going to need to maintain telework flexibility in order to compete with the private sector — and their own counterparts inside of government — for top talent in a post-COVID world, the government’s top personnel official said Thursday.

Kiran Ahuja, director of the Office of Personnel Management, told House oversight lawmakers that the federal government won’t be able to compete for talent with private sector companies that are now codifying telework flexibilities after seeing success during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re seeing that this is the wave of the future in the private sector,” Ahuja testified before the House Oversight and Reform Government Operations Subcommittee. “The private sector is defining these positions based on if they can provide more workplace flexibility. They’re training their supervisors, they’re upgrading their IT. They’re working on all these dimensions that we want to be doing in the federal government so that we can compete with talent.”

The competition for talent is also occurring inside of government, where federal workers are jumping ship to join agencies that have greater telework options, Ahuja said.

“What we are seeing is agency-hopping, based on where employees see level of flexibility,” she said. “We don’t want agencies having to compete with each other for different employees within the federal government.”

Jason Miller, deputy director for management in the Office of Management and Budget, emphasized that telework is “particularly useful [in recruiting for] jobs that are critical skills: cybersecurity, IT, data analytics — some of those areas where some of this work can be performed in a telework setting is absolutely critical.”

“It’s an area where we have a gap today consistent with those sectors, with those workers across the country including the private sector. That’s a major tool for us to make sure that we’re filling that gap and addressing it going forward. And it’s an expectation, particularly for those in early career.”

Ahuja believes telework comes with a number of benefits — like enhanced productivity, engagement, morale and continuity of operations, and the possibility to recruit a more diverse and inclusive workforce from across the nation — and said OPM plans to provide agencies with “additional resources to chart a path forward.”

However, several lawmakers, mostly on the Republican side, didn’t buy into Ahuja’s thoughts on telework and asked for data to prove its benefits, urging that federal employees are more productive when working in person and need to return to normal, pre-COVID office levels, as President Biden suggested would be the case in his March State of the Union remarks.

“The president said in his State of the Union that federal workers were going to return back to work, and that has not been the case,” said Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga. “In fact, telework and remote work have expanded, and that’s a bit concerning to me.”

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Jason Miller, Kiran Ahuja, Office of Personnel Management (OPM), telework
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