More and more federal agencies are announcing RTOs, such as the Veterans Affairs Department (VA) mandating that its approximately 400,000 employees return to the office for at least half of their workweek. These announcements are part of a larger political drama that raises important questions about talent retention in federal employment.
The Biden administration at first defended remote work for federal employees as boosting retention. Yet Republicans in Congress pushed hard to end WFH benefits, and so did the Democratic Mayor of Washington DC. Given this bipartisan pressure, the Biden administration flip-flopped its position, with the White House Chief of Staff demanding that federal agencies “aggressively execute” an RTO in the Fall.
That’s how I ended up in a videoconference call with a senior federal agency human resources official discussing how I can help them figure out their RTO strategy. The official described feeling trapped between a rock and hard place, knowing that ending telework will result in losing many talented staff and thus impair their ability to serve the public, yet needing to fulfill the top-level directives. He wanted to figure out how to square the circle and conduct an RTO that minimizes the inevitable attrition. It’s similar to the position that many private sector HR leaders find themselves in, except for the overarching polarized political context and much more challenging retention dynamics.
After all, many people work in the public sector for a lower salary in exchange for better labor conditions. If they can get better labor conditions in the form of more flexibility in the private sector, along with a higher salary, what’s keeping them in government employment?
What Do Federal Employees Say?
But are the HR official’s fears valid? Data indicates that they are.
For example, an internal EPA survey uncovered overwhelming support for remote work. 65.9% percent said they would consider leaving EPA if flexibility was reduced; 80.1% indicated they would experience “personal hardships” with any decrease of flexibility; and according to 65.5%, a reduction in flexibility would negatively impact diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility. A shockingly high 97% of employees surveyed said flexibility has helped them be more productive. In turn, 83.2% “strongly agree[ d ]” that their colleagues, regardless of their work location, met the public’s needs. No wonder that Bethany Dreyfus, president of American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 1236, which represents EPA Region 9 employees, defended the benefits of flexibility.
A recent survey, this time conducted by the AFGE itself, focused on the National Science Foundation (NSF), in response to NSF’s announcement that most of its employees would need to work in the office at least four days per two-week pay period, starting October 23. A total of 42% said they would have difficulty adjusting to the new four-day in-office requirement. Even more alarming, another 27% labeled the new office expectations as “unworkable,” stating they would either find a new job or retire. Nearly half of the respondents mentioned that the new policies would make the work environment less attractive to diverse groups and up-and-coming talent. Jesús Soriano, president of AFGE Local 3403, emphasized that the survey’s results should prompt NSF leadership to reconsider the impacts of their decisions on both productivity and the agency’s mission.
A broader survey from Eagle Hill Consulting confirms these trends. Conducted by Ipsos, this study surveyed more than 500 federal, state, and local government workers. A staggering 45% of respondents said they would consider looking for new employment if their agency reduced remote and hybrid working options. The Eagle Hill survey found that 59% of employees with remote or hybrid working arrangements said their job satisfaction would decrease if mandated to return to in-person work. Furthermore, 44% said their productivity would suffer. The survey also highlighted specific concerns that make remote work appealing to employees: work/life balance (45%), time spent commuting (43%), higher costs (38%), and stress (34%).
Interestingly, the Eagle Hill survey did not entirely discount the value of in-person work. Respondents saw merit in working in-person for specific tasks, such as team building (85%), managing teams (77%), and training (72%). This nuanced view suggests that a blanket approach to RTO may not be effective and that agencies would benefit from a more tailored strategy.
A final survey by Federal Times, which polled more than 960 federal workers across various agencies, shows that federal workers are taking actions on their concerns. According to this survey, half of federal employees have applied for a new job since agencies were told to initiate return-to-office plans in 2021. This includes jobs both in and out of government, and more than a third of those who left government jobs cited the ability to work remotely as the deciding factor, while another 30% said it weighed heavily on their decision. This data reinforces the idea that remote work isn’t merely a perk but a substantial factor influencing employee retention across federal agencies. Interestingly, the survey also touched upon the power unions hold in these negotiations. Around 60% of respondents felt that unions had “some power” to protect telework preferences.
Top-Down RTO Mandate Failures
These statistics underline the high stakes involved in poorly executed RTO plans. And they’re confirmed by research on the consequences of top-down forced mandates.
According to Envoy’s recent study, a staggering 80% of executives express regret over their initial return-to-office (RTO) decisions. The research, which included interviews with over 1,000 U.S. company executives and workplace managers, highlighted a pattern of uninformed decisions. Many leaders indicated that they would have adopted different strategies had they been privy to employee attendance data and amenity usage.
The “Returning for Good” report from Unispace adds another dimension to this complex issue. It revealed that 42% of companies with mandatory RTO policies experienced higher levels of employee attrition than anticipated. Furthermore, nearly 29% of these companies are struggling to attract new talent. These numbers are more than just statistical surprises; they reveal a serious underestimation of the human elements involved in RTO policies.
Interestingly, the Unispace study also reveals that employee morale is significantly influenced by the degree of flexibility in RTO policies. While 31% of employees reported feeling happy, 30% motivated, and 27% excited to return to the office, these numbers dipped to 27%, 26%, and 22% when the return was mandated. This reflects the power of autonomy and suggests that choice might be a simple yet effective solution to some of the challenges outlined above.
Minimizing Attrition in RTO
But what should the senior federal agency HR official to whom I spoke actually do? Having helped out a number of state and local government organizations in their RTO strategy, my experience suggests the key is getting employee and union buy-in, while offering flexibility and meaningful choices, as the Unispace study suggests.
Start by administering a detailed survey to your staff. The questions should not only be focused on the basic preferences around remote and office work, but they should also delve into the deeper metrics that are often overlooked—such as well-being, stress levels, and the nuanced differences between individual and collaborative tasks in various settings. Moreover, the questions should offer employees various options of how to do hybrid work, and probe how employees would feel about each option.
Why is this survey important? Because metrics speak louder than gut feelings. I have seen that when companies quantify staff preferences, they are better equipped to shape an RTO strategy that will be met with less resistance. Importantly, this data can also alert you to potential retention issues before they arise. If you’re reading this after your RTO has launched, it’s not too late; use the survey to refine your existing approach. Those who wish to access a ready-made survey can find one in the appendix of my best-selling book, Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams.
Data alone, no matter how quantifiable, doesn’t reveal the complete picture. The next strategic move is to organize focus groups. Select a microcosm of your organization, including various departments and hierarchical levels, but remember—one size does not fit all. Don’t mix managers with rank-and-file employees in these discussions. Why? Because the dynamics of power play can distort authentic responses.
What makes focus groups compelling? Their power lies in their capacity to delve deep into the complexities and subtleties that a surface-level survey simply can’t capture. While your surveys offer you a quantifiable landscape of employee sentiment—something akin to a satellite map—the focus groups act as your ground expedition, capturing the intricate details that offer rich, context-specific insights. They are your tool to dissect the “why” behind the “what,” enabling you to understand the motivations, concerns, and hidden aspirations of your workforce that could fundamentally influence your RTO strategy.
Conducting a focus group with union leaders is critically important. Union leaders are not just the voice of the rank-and-file; they are the designated representatives who hold a mandate to negotiate for the collective good of the workforce. Ignoring this essential stakeholder group can result in avoidable bottlenecks and resistance down the line. In a setting where policies and decisions are often politicized and scrutinized for their broader social implications, having the buy-in from union leaders can offer an imprimatur of credibility and fairness to your RTO plan. Engaging union leaders in focus groups allows you to preempt potential challenges and incorporate solutions that are both practical and equitable, thereby fortifying your RTO strategy with a robustness that can withstand both internal and external scrutiny.
It’s valuable to have a neutral third party to lead these focus groups. An impartial facilitator establishes an environment where everyone feels safe to speak candidly. It’s about creating a space free from any institutional filters that might otherwise hinder an honest exchange of views. In my experience, having a neutral facilitator not only brings objectivity but also encourages participants to step out of their professional personas and bring their whole selves into the discussion.
Here comes the act of alchemy—melding the quantitative data from the surveys with the qualitative insights from the focus groups. While numbers offer the backbone of your strategy, the qualitative data infuses it with life, making it more relatable and empathetic to employees’ actual lived experiences. This hybrid approach to decision-making is not just sound governance; it’s humane governance.
Transparency isn’t just a buzzword; it’s an imperative for successful RTO strategies. Share your findings and planned actions with your employees. Make them feel heard and considered, even if the final plan doesn’t align perfectly with individual preferences. A transparent decision-making process has an uncanny ability to transform naysayers into at least passive supporters, facilitating their buy-in and reducing attrition, especially from union representatives.
In the face of bipartisan political pressures and evolving work dynamics, recent mandates for federal employees to return to the office poses significant risks to talent retention and operational effectiveness. The data is clear: federal employees value flexibility, and reductions in flexibility contribute to attrition and decreased job satisfaction. Any attempt at a successful RTO strategy must be deeply data-driven and adaptive, incorporating both quantitative surveys and qualitative focus groups. Importantly, involving union leaders can add a layer of credibility and fairness. Therefore, to square the circle, agencies need to adopt a tailored, hybrid approach that aligns with both employee expectations and the practical needs of public service.
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Originally published in Disaster Avoidance Experts on September 6, 2023
Dr. Gleb Tsipursky was lauded as “Office Whisperer” and “Hybrid Expert” by The New York Times for helping leaders use hybrid work to improve retention and productivity while cutting costs. He serves as the CEO of the boutique future-of-work consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts. Dr. Gleb wrote the first book on returning to the office and leading hybrid teams after the pandemic, his best-seller Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage (Intentional Insights, 2021). He authored seven books in total, and is best know for his global bestseller, Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters (Career Press, 2019). His cutting-edge thought leadership was featured in over 650 articles and 550 interviews in Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Inc. Magazine, USA Today, CBS News, Fox News, Time, Business Insider, Fortune, and elsewhere. His writing was translated into Chinese, Korean, German, Russian, Polish, Spanish, French, and other languages. His expertise comes from over 20 years of consulting, coaching, and speaking and training for Fortune 500 companies from Aflac to Xerox. It also comes from over 15 years in academia as a behavioral scientist, with 8 years as a lecturer at UNC-Chapel Hill and 7 years as a professor at Ohio State. A proud Ukrainian American, Dr. Gleb lives in Columbus, Ohio. In his free time, he makes sure to spend abundant quality time with his wife to avoid his personal life turning into a disaster. Contact him at Gleb[ at ]DisasterAvoidanceExperts[ dot ]com, follow him on LinkedIn @dr-gleb-tsipursky, Twitter @gleb_tsipursky, Instagram @dr_gleb_tsipursky, Facebook @DrGlebTsipursky, Medium @dr_gleb_tsipursky, YouTube, and RSS, and get a free copy of the Assessment on Dangerous Judgment Errors in the Workplace by signing up for the free Wise Decision Maker Course at https://disasteravoidanceexperts.com/newsletter/.