At federal agencies, remote work may be here to stay

More than 280,000 people in the D.C. area work directly for the federal government, and like many other area professionals, where they are working has now changed. Most government agencies have shifted a good share of their workforces to remote work, and a new survey suggests that may be here to stay.

The federal government has offered some telework options for agency employees for many years, but not on the scale it does now.

“GSA would set up these telework centers, and you would go to these telework centers. The concept of a telework center is now gone. You are either working remotely or you are in the office,” Mark Forman, vice president for digital government strategy at government IT contractor SAIC in Reston, Virginia, told WTOP.

SAIC surveyed hundreds of C-level federal government executives about remote work and plans for the future, and the majority expect the technology changes put in place in response to COVID-19 will become permanent ways of conducting business.

Its survey found 82% said they expect remote working to continue into the future. Forty-one percent expect to work remotely four to five days a week, compared to an average two days a week before the pandemic.

And government agencies, like private sector employers, are now asking, “Why not?”

“The notion of a government office building as a place where people come to do their work is clearly shifting. They’ll come in to do meetings, but to the extent that they can work on their own, why waste time sitting in traffic? The productivity side of that, then, is that people are more productive,” Forman said.

More than half of respondents — 56% — reported they are somewhat more productive, or a lot more productive, as a result of increased remote work.

Remote work for federal agencies has required a fast pivot to more robust digital infrastructure, but that has brought heightened concern.

According to SAIC’s survey, 77% of federal agency executives report they found it extremely or somewhat challenging managing federal IT systems to maximize remote work; 75% reported they found it extremely or somewhat challenging detecting fraud, waste and abuse during the pandemic, and 74% report they have found it extremely or somewhat challenging to protect government systems from cyberattacks during the pandemic.

“The challenges going forward as we move into the recovery phase and [with] some agencies going through restructuring, that phase does carry with it a need to do IT modernization, and the challenges with that clearly come through this survey, and the need to provide security at new levels and deal with these new threats that are coming out via social engineering,” Forman said.

Respondents were also asked to rate their agencies’ responses to the pandemic to date, with nearly three-quarters giving their agencies an “A” or a “B” for their ability to provide data and applications needed to do their work, perform essential operations and keep employees and critical data safe during the pandemic.

Fairfax, Virginia-based research firm Market Connections conducted the survey on SAIC’s behalf, with 300 federal government respondents, 95% at federal civilian agencies and 5% defense or military.

The full report is available online.

Jeff Clabaugh

Jeff Clabaugh has spent 20 years covering the Washington region's economy and financial markets for WTOP as part of a partnership with the Washington Business Journal, and officially joined the WTOP newsroom staff in January 2016.

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