Hugh Halpern remembers what people thought of the Government Publishing Office back when he was a congressional staffer — it was a source of frustration, a slothy relic of another time.
“I used to joke that GPO could do anything you wanted, and print whatever you wanted in whatever color you wanted — as long as it was black or gray,” said Halpern, now the agency’s director. “That’s precisely the attitude we’re trying to change.”
These days, the agency is rolling out a policy that advocates see as the future. The once slow-to-change GPO will allow a permanent shift to virtual work for about a third of its employees. They can apply to work from home up to 100 percent of the time, Halpern announced this month, while the remainder of the agency’s 1,576 employees must report for duty in person.
Halpern sees the move as a strategic one, something that will make the GPO more attractive in the long run for workers craving flexibility after an exhausting pandemic. It also represents a reversal. Of all the arms of the legislative branch, who would have thought the office best known for printing passports and ream after fusty ream of the Congressional Record would be the first to come out and say things can’t go back to the way they were?
“We’re trying to embrace new things — not just buying a new machine that will increase our capacity, but really embracing new ways of working,” Halpern said.
A few blocks over at the Capitol, the state of virtual work is much more in flux. Unlike the GPO, which can make changes for large chunks of employees, congressional staffers live in a different, more confusing world of hundreds of fiefdoms, each with their own office rules and policies. As many staffers return to the Hill after working from home during the pandemic, others say they’re not sure what the future will hold.
That uncertainty has sparked feelings of hope, fear and disappointment — and it has only deepened concerns about staff retention that have been around for years, said Brad Fitch, president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation.
“If congressional offices do not offer work flex arrangements to their employees, it is almost guaranteed they’re going to not just lose them to K Street, they’re going to lose them to other congressional offices that are offering it,” Fitch said.
One senior staffer who works for a Democrat said they have no idea what will happen next.
“I haven’t really asked for permission to continue working remotely, but we also haven’t been told that we have to come back in,” said the staffer, who asked to not be identified because it could jeopardize their job.
“It would be problematic if all of a sudden [I were] asked to come in tomorrow through the rest of the week, because I don’t have anything lined up for my kids,” the staffer said. “We’d be scrambling.”
The staffer described waiting in limbo, hoping for a few more months to ride out the pandemic and its child care challenges — and maybe even a better shot at some flexibility after that.
Experienced staffers have long said the Hill is unforgiving for people with family duties at home. If offices try to turn the clock back to February 2020, tensions could boil over, Fitch said.
“Members that try to do that are going to face resistance from their employees — maybe not outright rebellion, but certainly a quiet rebellion,” he said. “They’re just not going to be able to, quote-unquote, go back to the normal that was pre-pandemic.”
Some lawmakers’ offices are already using virtual work as a selling point, whether it’s the option to flex on Fridays or the freedom to leave Washington behind.
“I don’t think we’ll ever go back to a posture of everyone in the office for every working minute,” said Roddy Flynn, chief of staff for Democratic Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon of Pennsylvania. “We had a very generous teleworking policy before the pandemic, and we’ll continue to have one going forward.”
Still, for Flynn and his staff, showing up in person some days is once again the norm, after a monthslong process that included lots of conversations and anonymous surveys.
Farther afield from the halls of power, at least one district office is playing up the perk to offset what has traditionally been seen as a less than glamorous job.
“It’s difficult keeping people in a district office. This is usually their first job, perhaps their second, and most people in our business want to be … up on the Hill,” said Noah Simon, district director for Democratic Rep. Donald S. Beyer Jr. of Virginia.
“It is an attractive piece,” he said of telework, which he tried out during the pandemic. It’s been an incredibly busy time — constituent requests are up 300 percent, though outreach events are down.
“The idea was let’s give it a shot with having one person in the office, rather than all four of us, to see if our productivity remains where it needs to be,” he said.
So far it has, he said.
For Kameelah Pointer, remote work meant she could stay at her Hill job a little longer. She left Washington to be closer to her family after her brother was killed and spent a year during the pandemic working from Chicago.
“I didn’t want to move to any other office because I knew my office was flexible,” said the former Democratic staffer and president of the Senate Black Legislative Staff Caucus.
Now she’s headed to law school, but she knows plenty of people like her — people who want to be part of the legislative process but can’t make a life in Washington.
“I can see that those folks who do have [family] duties and responsibilities, if their office is not offering those flexibilities, would want to consider transferring to a different office, not even off the Hill, but within the Senate,” she said.
Not always partisan
Like almost everything surrounding the coronavirus, the idea of virtual work has gotten kicked around like a political football. Democrats supposedly love it; Republicans supposedly hate it.
But it’s not always that simple, staffers say. The Capitol may once again be erupting in partisan fights over mask wearing and proxy voting as the delta variant of the coronavirus arrives there, but lawmakers are shouting the loudest. At the staff level, there are whispers among Republicans that working from home may not be such a bad thing.
“Our office has been respectful of COVID-19 since the pandemic started. We offered remote work for anyone who wanted to stay at home throughout the crisis,” said a House GOP committee aide not permitted to speak publicly on their office policy.
“This is likely different from many GOP personal offices, which to my knowledge, are fully in-person every day,” the aide said.
Bosses should be willing to give employees some leeway on a case-by-case basis, said Will Kiley, communications director for Iowa GOP Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks.
“If a chief or a member, whoever’s ultimately the one setting the policy, is saying, ‘No, you have to be in every day, no matter what,’ to me that doesn’t sound like someone who is reasonable on every level,” he said. “There’s probably other issues that might make someone want to leave.”
Meanwhile, some Democrats still working from home are itching to come back.
“I think that the science and people’s health and well-being should always be the main determinant of whether you’re back in the office or not over anything else. But I miss it, I really, really do. I miss the energy of the Hill,” said Copeland Tucker, communications director for Democratic Rep. André Carson of Indiana.
Tucker did say the time at home allowed him to discover new pastimes. He kept adding plants to his collection, from succulents to vines. They creep, flower and dangle from the ceiling in the nook that holds his desk, giving it a calming glow.
“I’ve been able to work from home and be safe and also to have the time to pursue other interests and hobbies that I couldn’t do back when we were all in the office,” he said. “I have, like, 30 plants now. I’ve become a plant aficionado.”
‘Really good bones’
For Halpern over at the GPO, the decision to embrace virtual work ultimately came down to the numbers.
During the pandemic, the presses and production staff kept the building humming as they performed their essential duties, but the eighth floor was a ghost town. “There were, like, tumbleweeds flowing down the hallway,” Halpern said.
Those absent office workers managed to hit their targets from home, he said. At the agency’s Customer Account Division, which works with 92 federal agencies processing invoices, productivity was up by 11 percent in 2020.
It was hard to argue with those figures, which is why Halpern made it a permanent thing for a third of employees. The new policy allows for both telework and remote work, where people can live in a different location outside of Washington.
With its host of publications to distribute and machines to operate on site, the GPO is a long way from going fully virtual. But Halpern does see changes coming to the big brick government building that has been pushing out documents since the Civil War.
The building has “really good bones,” he said, and may soon see fewer cubicles and more collaborative spaces to support a hybrid staff.
“I want the best bookbinders, the best press operators, the best software developers, the best finance people,” Halpern said. “And if remote work and telework is a tool I can use to attract some of the best folks to a place that I think is a great place to work, I want to have those tools in my toolbox.”