Federal employees rallied outside the John F. Kennedy Federal Building on Tuesday, calling for the U.S. Department of Labor to protect their right to work remotely, bringing a fight to the public over a policy their union has been negotiating for since last April.

“Telework has been such a positive for our work staff. One: work-life balance. But just more productivity, less time spent getting ready for work, in traffic, getting to work,” said Joe Oosterhout, a union steward with the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The small rally of about 35 people joins the national conversation on how employers should balance remote and in-person work after the COVID-19 pandemic. It was organized by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 948, which represents employees at the Department of Labor in Boston and New England.

AFGE represents 181 members in the Department of Labor and 45,000 government workers in New England.

After federal employees started returning to the office in 2021, AFGE negotiated a memorandum of understanding to improve workplace flexibility and allow federal employees the choice to work from home more often. But, in recent months, the federal government has started shifting away from telework.

In November 2023, acting Labor Secretary Julie Su sent an all-staff email with return-to-office plans, including requiring employees to work in the office at least five days over a two-week pay period — an increase from the current policy of just two days. AFGE started negotiations with the Department of Labor to keep more telework flexibility but failed to reach a contract agreement. Negotiations are now in arbitration.

“We're just out here trying to preserve that memorandum of understanding. We're willing to negotiate, make changes to it. But as long as it's bargained in good faith,” Oosterhout said.

The Department of Labor did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Su and other employers have cited the need to build relationships and culture with colleagues, a reason many companies use to support their return-to-office policies, and specifically pointed to the fact that about a third of the department’s workforce was hired since January 2021.

In-person work and networking can be particularly important for younger workers, said Brigid Schulte, director of the Better Life Lab at the think tank New America. But hybrid work environments have benefits, too

"There's a real benefit to having a mix," she said. "Where you're really clear on what your job is, what your tasks are, and that there is a time to come together and build culture and collaborate and and to have those, what they call 'hallway moments.'"

Some studies show that hybrid work can even achieve better workplace culture. That’s according to the 2023 Future Forum Pulse survey, which found workers with a more flexible schedule were 57% more likely to say their company culture has improved when compared with fully in-person workers.

Schulte said the key to hybrid work is flexibility, she said, and what works for one company or team may not meet the needs of another.

“It all goes back to what is the work that you're doing and how should it get done?” Schulte said.

Carmen Rodriguez, who works in grant management for the Employment and Training Administration, told GBH News that her team worked remotely even before the pandemic and they had laptops at home.

Rodriguez said she’s able to work with grantees across the country without having to come into the office.

“It doesn’t really make sense for you to disconnect your laptop at home, come back into the office, connect it, and do the same thing you were doing at home,” she said.