A recent Government Accountability Office report confirms what most observers already assumed — the COVID-19 pandemic prompted much of the federal workforce at the Department of Energy and elsewhere to abandon their cubicles in favor of telecommuting, although the practice has its own hassles.

The DoE, a part of which manages U.S. nuclear weapons modernization, found there were limits to its work-from-home efforts especially in areas like security, sensitive records and integrating newly-hired employees, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) report issued Tuesday, Feb 8.

“For example, personnel security office employees could not immediately telework because their work required paper files located on site,” according to the report.

“For staff who wanted to telework, management had to identify portable work assignments and ensure there was sufficient work for teleworkers to complete,” GAO said. While DoE began digitizing paper files years ago, it is a long slog and requires upgraded electronic systems the agency now lacks, GAO said. “After initial adjustments, DoE’s personnel security employees teleworked for the first 3 months of the pandemic.”

Engineers at DoE devised online training for their new hires but found it challenging. “According to DoE officials, some on-the-job training did not translate to virtual or paper explanations because of the complicated nature of the work,” GAO said.

With the vast majority of its employees vaccinated, the DoE and its $7.6-billion Office of Environmental Management are in the midst of an effort to return more workers to the office by mid-March but at the same time looking to utilize more telework than the pre-pandemic days.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and a handful of other agencies, could not report its telecommuting data in a format requested by GAO, according to a footnote in the report.

Increased teleworking affected the “work-life balance” at DoE in ways both good and bad, GAO said. The “boundaries between work and home life became blurred, often resulting in employees working longer hours and extended workweeks,” according to the report. DoE eventually suspended core work hours “and encouraged supervisors to exercise maximum flexibility” on staff schedules. In addition, agency employees who act as caregivers became eligible for up to 20 hours of excused absences.

Employees at DoE were surveyed about their telework experiences from February through May 2021 and future work-from-home preferences.

Just before the pandemic started to spread domestically in January 2020, 13 of 24 agencies surveyed by GAO reported a quarter of their people teleworked to some extent, according to the report released Tuesday Feb. 8. “By April 2020, all 24 agencies reported at least a quarter of employees teleworked, with nine agencies reporting at least 90 percent of their employees teleworked.”

The GAO report said the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) should set deadlines for agencies to help improve employee payroll data, including more telework information.