I read an interesting article on telework in Government Executive last week. The headline asked “Is This the Right Time for the White House to Promote Working from Home?” Reporter Kellie Lunney’s article highlighted OPM Director Katherine Archuleta’s August 22 memorandum to agency heads on expansion of workplace flexibilities and work-life programs. The question regarding timing is certainly legitimate. The US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is in the midst of a scandal regarding its telework program. The USPTO issues are representative in type (but probably not scope) of those other agencies are experiencing.
Those issues (tele-goofing off rather than working, inability to accurately measure productivity) and management unwillingness to deal effectively with performance and conduct issues) put workplace flexibilities at risk. They can damage the reputation of the Federal workforce, and they provide fodder to those who believe Federal employees are doing too little work for too much pay.
Telework and other workplace flexibilities are a good thing for government and the private sector. They allow organizations to dramatically reduce their office footprint and reduce costs. They take traffic off the roads and reduce congestion. They allow employees to reclaim their commuting time and use it for personal pursuits. In a labor market where telework is commonplace, having effective telework programs allows employers to compete for talent. They allow employers to remain open during weather emergencies because their workforce can continue working from their home offices. Telework has its detractors too. They claim it is too hard to monitor performance when people work from home. They say some employees use telework as a substitute for child care and are not productive at home. They believe telework interferes with team dynamics and makes working as a cohesive team much more difficult. There is some truth to all of the complaints and praises of telework, but the fact is telework is expanding and will continue to expand.
Rather than attempting to reverse telework programs, we should be working on fixing the problems. Nothing I have experienced, heard from people currently in government, or read tells me telework and other workplace flexibilities should be killed. That toothpaste is out of the tube. Government should take steps to improve accountability and make the programs work. I know they can. Some of the agencies where I worked handle telework effectively. My current employer, ICF International, uses telework extensively. Our workforce is responsible and incidents of abuse are rare. We are able to assess employee productivity and know when problems are developing. We are not alone. Others in industry and in government manage these programs well.
Some of the problems with telework are also problems when employees are working from their employer’s building. I remember a discussion with a colleague who was an Army Major General. He opposed telework and refused to allow it in his organization. When I asked why, he said “I need to know people are working, and when I want to speak with someone, they need to be here.” So I asked, “Do you know who is working on the other side of your office wall? If you leave your private office and walk back to where the dozens of cubicles are, will you know who is working? When you want to speak with someone, do you summon them? Walk back to their cubicle? Or do you send an email or pick up the phone?” He agreed that he didn’t know if everyone was working at that time and if he wanted to speak with someone he would call them.
Short of walking around all day and looking in all of the cubicles, managers cannot know who is working simply by proximity. They need measures of performance and productivity. Good measures work whether the employee is in a Federal office building or working from home. The most critical key to effective telework programs is good productivity and performance measures. Without them, telework is less effective. However, without them, working in an office – any office – is less effective.
Plans to implement telework often focus on some of the obvious needs – technology, agreements with the union, processes for requesting and approving it, and the adequacy of a home workspace. Performance is usually part of the discussion, but detailed performance and productivity measures are not always part of that discussion. They must be if telework is to be effective. Managers should have a discussion with each teleworker before their first day of working from home to explain what is expected, hours they are expected to work and any flexibility of hours that is allowed, how their productivity will be measured, and what good performance looks like. Notice the difference between telework and working in the office? No? That is because there is no difference. Other than those things that are specifically caused by working remotely, such as the need for access to systems from home, there is no real difference between telework and office work.
The one problem that can be a deal killer for telework is trust. If an employee cannot be trusted to work independently, s/he cannot be trusted to telework. S/he also cannot be trusted to sit in a cubicle in the office and work. The only real difference in those cases is that there are coworkers around and they may report the person for goofing off.
If we address the issues of measures and trust, there is no reason why telework should not be expanded. If the issues are not addressed and support for telework begins to wane, the government may find itself with one more recruiting challenge (on top of Fed-bashing, pay freezes, and furloughs) – the lack of a perceived benefit that is offered by most people who are competing for the same talent. We already have enough challenges in recruiting young people for government.