Remote work is slowing CDC overhaul, leaders say

A heavily remote workforce may be slowing an overhaul of the CDC, Kaiser Health News reported Dec. 5. 

In April, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, announced plans to make the agency more nimble and simplify its messaging, acknowledging an insufficient response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In October, Politico reported that limited authority, congressional inaction and resistance from longtime staffers was slowing reform. 

As of October, 78 percent of the CDC's full-time workforce had the ability to work remotely at least part of the time, according to data obtained by KHN. Additionally, Dr. Walensky works remotely much of the time, like directors before her, because her role demands a lot of travel. An out-of-office CDC is raising questions from experts, who believe the agency would benefit from more in-person interaction. 

"I would like to see every effort made to try to restore that culture to the extent possible, because CDC will potentially lose some of its excellence if it can't," Stephen Cochi, MD, who worked at the CDC for four decades before retiring in 2022, told KHN. Dr. Cochi said the largely remote workforce and a growing bureaucracy made it "almost impossible to get anything done" in his final years. 

Pamela Hinds, PhD, a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford (Calif.) University, told KHN visible leadership could streamline communication by offering employees an open door and "walking the halls. 

Chris Collins, PhD, a professor at Ithaca, N.Y.-based Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Management, said allowing people to "bump ideas against each other" as often as possible could improve innovation. 

A CDC policy document updated in April said remote work helps recruit and retain their workers, keeps them happy, and reduces office costs. 

"People at the CDC are working well, they're working hard, and they don't necessarily need to be on-site in Atlanta," Dr. Walensky said when remote work was criticized at a congressional hearing in September, according to KHN. "In fact, oftentimes, they're more productive off-site."

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