Telework points to management issues in and out of the office

Joe Davidson
Columnist July 18, 2012

Reader reaction to a Federal Diary column on an Obama administration report gives life to the document’s findings on impediments to teleworking.

The Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM) annual report on the “Status of Telework in the Federal Government,” says “management resistance” is the most frequently cited barrier to implementation of telework in federal agencies, closely followed by technology issues.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

What reader reaction points out more graphically than the report is really a larger managerial problem in federal agencies. The issue is not just being able to manage telework, it’s an issue of being able to manage performance generally.

Consider these comments:

From a Department of Veterans Affairs manager who did not want to be identified:

“First, government has historically managed employees’ work by time, not product. The entire structure of personnel management in government has been built around whether the employee was at work during duty hours, not to whether or not they actually produced a product.

“Making such a big change as this is both a structural change (changing and adjusting the working rules) and a cultural one (changing the way managers and employees interact). It cannot be done overnight. The only way to determine if a teleworker has accomplished anything requires that the employee report on their daily work efforts and for the manager to hold them accountable for it. I know of no manager in my office who has done this.”

A Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) worker, whose e-mail handle is “Ziggy 101,” said “one of the reasons teleworking works for the PTO is that we are a production based system with very definite goals and deadlines each bi-week, quarter and fiscal year. The production goals are set and there are consequences to not making these goals. Yes, people do get fired. Having worked at another government agency where the measurement of work and goals was not as clear, I can understand why some would find it difficult to understand how you would measure someone’s work at home.”

Said “Whazzis:” “I agree that managers need to learn how to manage. Most have no clue what their employees are doing in the office and don’t seem to care. So when the employee works from home, suddenly the manager is ‘worried’ about whether the employee is productive.

“News flash to managers — you should be tracking the productivity of ALL your employees at least once/week. That would help you learn which are slacking off while in the office and reward those who are efficient.”

William L. Bransford, general counsel of four federal managers organizations, said training is key to getting greater management buy-in for telework. Training can help overcome the worry of some supervisors that they won’t be able to withdraw teleworking from employees if their productivity falls.

He said telework agreements between management and staffers, such as those outlined in OPM’s “Guide to Telework in the Federal Government,” help allay managerial concerns. The agreements can be for a six- or 12-month period, allowing the arrangement to be canceled if it is not working out. “[T]elework agreements should be well-written, jargon-free, practical, and clear regarding responsibilities, roles and expectations,” according to the guide.

Some federal labor unions have written telework agreements with agencies.

National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen M. Kelley said that, under an IRS agreement that takes effect in October, “requests from eligible employees for ‘frequent telework’ will normally be ap­proved, unless work demands dictate otherwise.”

William R. Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, said including employees early in telework decisions is key to overcoming management resistance. “The more employees’ concerns are brought into the implementation process, the smoother the transition will be,” he said. “Agency and facility-level labor-management partnership councils would be an ideal forum to get the stakeholders together and work toward a consensus.”

Managers at agencies with good teleworking programs agree on the need for communication.

“It’s really important to have that conversation about clearly defining performance measures,” said Danette R. Campbell, PTO’s senior telework adviser. “As long as expectations are clearly defined, it really does not matter where the worker is located.”

Added William D. Spencer, clerk of the Merit Systems Protection Board: “Ultimately, our productivity stays the same regardless of where people physically do their work, and we watch those numbers very closely as part of MSPB’s and individuals’ performance.”

One manager, identified with the e-mail handle “lancepcope,” can’t understand fellow supervisors “who simply couldn’t trust their employees” to be productive away from the office.

“Either a report is finished and on time or it isn’t etc.,” “lancepcope” said. “It’s easy to establish measurable performance goals for many jobs, especially [administrative] support that does not involve the public.”

But if it’s easy, why don’t more managers do it?

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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