Taking the stress out of work

For several years, congressional leaders have been pushing federal employees to telework — most recently by suggesting that agencies could be fined for falling short of teleworking goals. Telework — working from home or a location other than the office — was originally viewed as a way to reduce traffic. But more frequently, feds see it as a way to keep the government running in the event of a disaster.

Although all eligible federal employees should be teleworking by now, the latest Office of Personnel Management statistics show that only about 13 percent are doing so. Of the 751,844 who are eligible, only 102,921 are teleworking.

But teleworking is slowly gaining converts. Some people telework for health reasons, others for personal or economic reasons. Teleworking arrangements often start as informal agreements and become more formal.

In most cases, managers and employees have a learning curve. But in the end, communication, trust and productivity make teleworking successful.

Relief for a taxing job

As a Web application developer for the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, Tom Salter said he wasn't getting much done at the office. He had too many interruptions, and he was stressed, frustrated and sick of working nights and weekends to finish projects on time.

Fortunately, he had an understanding boss and a job tailor-made for the teleworking environment. Salter's boss, Bob Donnan, suggested he work from home so that he could make more progress on a project. Although it began as an informal agreement, it has become full-time and permanent.

Salter has been working from his home in Marshall, Va., about 50 miles outside of Washington, D.C., for about five years. He set up a home office, does most of his work off-line and communicates with team members via e-mail. In fact, all six employees in the administration's information technology department are full-time teleworkers, which Donnan said can sometimes make it lonely at the office.

"There are some days it would be nice to stick my head out the door to get instant feedback on something [I] needed," he said.

But software application development lends itself to teleworking, and communication via e-mail works just fine, he said.

"Because we're in application development, we have things that can be measured easily," Salter said. "I have a project plan broken down into two-week increments. That's how Bob measures what I do."

To manage teleworkers, Donnan said, it is essential to become better at planning. "It's a whole lot easier when tasks are laid out in front of you and [are] well managed."

It's also important that teleworkers feel they are part of a group. "As a manager, you pretty much have to force collaboration within the group because if you don't, then everybody seems to become an island," he said. "So, every week we have a conference call. Without that connection, you might lose focus on the overall goal and mission. You think you're out there by yourself."

Not long after Salter started teleworking, officials at the administration, which provides independent oversight of Internal Revenue Service activities, formalized the teleworking program. As part of the program, the organization would cover up to 50 percent of the costs of his high-speed Internet access and would require him to sign a memorandum of understanding. The agreement sets performance expectations and the amount of expenses teleworkers can expect, among other things.

Salter said he is more productive now that he is working from home. The arrangement also gives him more time to spend with his family and at his son's basketball games.

Peace of mind

About three years ago, Mertis Baffoe-Harding, a budget analyst at the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service (MMS), found she was spending more time taking care of her aging mother, and it was stressing her out. She was quickly using up her annual leave allowance to tend to her now 84-year-old mother when a colleague suggested she telework a few days a week.

Baffoe-Harding broached the subject with her manager, and he agreed. "He said everyone can't telecommute because everyone doesn't work well from home," she said. "But he knew I would do my job well from home. If you have a boss who is allowing you to do this, don't disappoint him."

Three managers later, Baffoe-Harding still works from her home in Washington, D.C., twice a week, which gives her more flexibility to take care of her mother. Her current manager, Gregory Gould, said she continues to perform well and is happier and more productive. "It's better for me and for anybody who is in this job to have a person who is not as stressed out," he said.

Although teleworking is still a somewhat new concept at MMS, the arrangement has worked out better than expected, Baffoe-Harding said. "It has eased a lot of [my mother's] fears of growing older, and it has helped me a lot. I have been in government for 32 years and never thought of being able to do something like this."

Gould advises other managers to encourage teleworking because the result is a much happier workforce, he said. However, they should have a plan for teleworkers that looks at the bigger picture. The plan should say, "'This is what's due, and here are your due dates,'" Gould said. "Have a work plan in place that is designed for the office, not designed for the telework day."

Not every job is suited to telework, and not every person is suited to teleworking. "Some people need the structure of the office, and some don't," Gould said. "I think it needs to be done on a case-by-case basis."

Right job, wrong place

People telework for different reasons. For Catherine Baranek, who advises the Department of Veterans Affairs on human resources issues, it was a matter of expertise.

Baranek is an expert on Title 38, a set of laws that governs how the VA hires nurses and doctors. When agency officials began looking for someone with her background to work in the VA's Washington, D.C., Office of Human Resources Management Policy and Programs, they found themselves in a predicament.

Baranek's boss, Larry Ables, said he wasn't given the authority to pay for someone to relocate, but he wanted to expand the pool of candidates. "I wanted to find the best," he said.

So Ables pitched the idea of a virtual employee, a teleworker who would work from a location outside Washington, D.C. At first, upper managers were leery of the proposal, he said. But they agreed to let him hire one teleworker on a trial basis (he eventually hired two), as long as the person worked from another VA office, not from home.

This turn of events was serendipitous for Baranek. She wanted the job but didn't want to leave Winston-Salem, N.C., where her family lived. It turned out to be a perfect fit.

For the past two years, she has been teleworking five days a week from the VA regional counsel's office near her home. Baranek said she is more productive now and even has time to produce a national, monthly employee newsletter.

As a teleworker, she misses out on the social bonding with her colleagues, face-to-face meetings and the chance to participate on committees.

"I think I lose out on all those intangibles — being part of the organization and having that daily recognition that contributes to your career," she said. "Before people knew me, it was hard to make appointments and get people to do things for me."

Baranek has helped lighten the load for the rest of the employees in the office, Ables said. Most managers feel uncomfortable allowing employees to telework because they are afraid they are goofing off, he said. "The bottom line is: Are they productive?" Ables said.

Good communication is crucial to the success of a teleworking arrangement. Ables makes sure he talks to Baranek at least once a day, and she said she always lets him know what she is working on.

Trust is essential to making teleworking successful, Ables said. "If I were to start teleworking among employees who work in my office, I would let them know it's not an entitlement," he said. "I'm very fortunate that all employees on my staff are professional and very good at their jobs. If we have trust that people are going to get those things done, I think we should let them have the opportunity."

Because Baranek works from another VA office, she did not sign a teleworking agreement regarding issues such as safety and technical support. Instead, she abides by policies already in place at the office where she works.

Teleworking usually means adjusting how you work. When she started teleworking, VA officials "didn't realize that we weren't completely electronic," Baranek said. This required setting up tracking systems and databases to more easily share data.

Teleworking is not for everyone or every job. But Baranek suggested employees look carefully at their duties and track how often they interact with someone or use office resources to finish an assignment. And consider whether you could work with less social interaction. n

O'Hara is freelance writer in Arlington, Va.

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