As federal employees begin returning to the office from telework or remote work or otherwise contend with instructions to do so, it is important they understand implications for decisions in not returning to the office as instructed.
Prior to the Pandemic, telework and remote work (these are two different conditions) was somewhat rare in Federal Service. Federal agencies maintained a long held traditional view that work could only be performed from within a physical agency office. It was truly a paradigm predicated upon the assumption that 1) technology had not evolved to the point that many federal occupations could work from anywhere and 2) employees could not be trusted if they were not directly supervised in an office environment. The sudden impact of the Pandemic forced federal agencies to evolve quickly, even if it meant federal managers would kick and scream all the way. Ultimately, by just about any metric, federal employees forced to telework or work remotely have done a good job in the new environment. However, there are always exceptions such as the federal employee who posted on Instagram that he was working from a bubble bath (frankly, there is always someone, in this case a supervisor, who will screw things up through poor judgement, though technically it appears he did nothing in violation of applicable policy).
However, thanks in large part to the vaccines, the adverse impacts of the Pandemic have largely (comparatively) subsided triggering agency recall efforts to return those employees to their offices who were suddenly forced into telework or remote work status due to the Pandemic. Thus far, these recall efforts are best described as non-uniform and spastic. Nevertheless, we have received an influx of inquiries from employees and unions concerning the reluctance of employees to physically return to their agency offices for a variety of reasons with the most common being that they simply do not want to return.
While it is true that (collectively) the federal workforce has demonstrated many occupations are prime for telework or remote work, there is generally no obligation for federal agencies to allow employees to telework or remote work as a condition of employment unless it chooses to do so. Even though a federal employee may have successfully performed to the level of a rated outstanding performance the previous two years and has otherwise demonstrated he or she can perform all the functions, essential or otherwise, of the position remotely, the agency is not obligated to continue allowing that employee to remotely work. If instructed to return to the office, federal employees are obligated to comply.
Therefore, we advise federal employees to comply with any “return to the office” instructions (may be in form of a directive). Non-compliance with supervisory instructions is a serious offense and could lead to disciplinary or adverse actions including removal from employment, despite what any union representative or colleague may tell you. If you wish to continue teleworking or working remote, you should inform your supervisor of this request and seek their assistance and approval. If you believe you have a medical condition that warrants a reasonable accommodation to permit you to telework, you should initiate such a request and seek appropriate guidance. If you need more time to adjust your personal circumstances to allow you to return to the office, you should immediately notify your supervisor and seek an extension in returning to the office. Obtain any approval in writing. However, in no instance should you refuse instructions to return.
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