Telework is slowly gaining a foothold in the federal government, but changing the attitudes of managers and supervisors who want to see their employees face-to-face remains a constant struggle.
A report by Office of Personnel Management (OPM) released in December found that a total of 301,372 federal employees teleworked at least once during fiscal 2012, the most recent data available. This represents about 14 percent of all federal employees and about one-third of those who have been designated as eligible to work remotely.
The benefits of teleworking have been well chronicled. For employees, it means avoiding long commutes, saving time, improving work-life balance, having greater job satisfaction and gaining a sense of empowerment. For the government, it can save money on overhead, provide better citizen services by extending hours, ensure continuity of operations during regional and national emergencies and snow storms, and lead to improved worker performance and greater productivity.
One has only to look at the recent government closings due to snow and ice, and the lost productivity that resulted except for those who were able to telework. At the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, where 73 percent of the 11,000 employees telework between one and five days a week, it was business as usual during weather-related closings.
While there is increased recognition about the strategic benefits of telework, OPM has pointed out that “management resistance continues to present a barrier to participation.” OPM also noted that tight budgets have been a roadblock for some agencies in terms of providing the information technology and security needed to expand telework.
For telework to become more prevalent and effective, senior leaders need to be the ones pushing for change and making a clear case to supervisors and managers that what counts is not where you are, but what gets accomplished.
To do this, leaders should implement a strategy that incorporates the following items:
Make the case. Asking managers, supervisors and employees to alter the way they work can’t be done by edict. It requires a full explanation and a detailed and compelling case for change, showing how it could improve operations and lead to better outcomes. That's the only way you'll get buy-in and, eventually, move forward.
Debunk the myths. Part of the buy-in requires convincing those set in their ways that employees who telecommute are not sitting around in their pajamas playing computer games. Research shows that telecommuting employees end up working longer hours by skipping the commute, and because the technology allows them to be on the job before and after regular business hours.
Set the rules. All of those involved in a teleworking program need to be on the same page. This means that the expectations and roles for telecommuting employees and for managers and supervisors need to be spelled out. From the beginning, employee accessibility and work requirements should be defined, as should procedures to deal with abuse of the system.
Provide the training. The federal law governing telework requires that there be an interactive training program for eligible employees and their managers. This should not be an afterthought. For teleworking to be effective, the computers, systems and procedures that help employees securely connect to the office and to outside parties need to be correctly in place.
Provide support. Managers need to develop techniques for communicating with and engaging employees in a virtual environment. During conference calls with telecommuting employees, managers should give each employee on the line a chance to speak at the beginning and end of every virtual meeting. Managers also may need to have more regularly schedule check-in calls to make certain that employees are making progress and receiving the support they need.
Focus on outcomes. The work accomplished, not face time, should be the measure of value. This will require identifying and evaluating performance measures to ensure that telecommuting employees are achieving the team's goals.
Make adjustments. Assess what is working and what is not, and have the flexibility to make changes as needed to serve everyone’s best interests.
These are just a few thoughts. Please share any success stories or missteps in the comment section below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership, is vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. He also heads the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.