Telework: The future is on hold

Should feds be allowed to work from anywhere, as long as the work gets done?

Up for Debate

The expert view: Workplace flexibility as the new normal

The community view: Selected comments from readers

Original discussions on FCW and Govloop

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We put six Gov 2.0 issues up for debate in the FCW Challenge:  Open government plans, social networking, acquisition 2.0, the IT agendaworkplace and cybersecurity.  We got a great sampling of ideas and opinions and present them here along with perspectives of community thought leaders.

In recent months, we have been hearing a lot about the concept of the Results Only Work Environment (ROWE). This is a management approach that assesses employees based on the work they do, not when or where they do it. Is your program manager in a cubicle on the fourth floor or at a table at Starbucks — using a secure wireless link, of course? It doesn’t matter, as long as the work gets done. Is that employee working a 9-to-5 day or more of a swing shift? Again, it doesn’t matter, as long as all of the tasks are completed.

The only catch is that federal agencies are filled with managers who are already ignoring mandates from the Office of Personnel Management and Congress to allow employees to telework. How can we even hope that something like ROWE will take root in the federal government?

That’s the question we put to Anne Weisberg, a talent director at Deloitte Services and co-author of “Mass Career Customization,” and William Eggers, global research director at Deloitte’s Public Sector Industry practice. His new book is “If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Getting Big Things Done in Government.”

Weisberg and Eggers are optimistic, particularly given the valuable role that telework played in keeping some workers connected during the snowstorms earlier this year in Washington, D.C. But input from readers at Federal Computer Week and GovLoop was mixed. Those who telework now love the flexibility, but others see little hope that managers will ever embrace telework and some see no reason why they should.

Click through the following pages to see the expert view and comments from the community.

Workplace Flexibility as the New Normal 

By Anne Weisberg and William Eggers

As William Gibson wrote in "Neuromancer," “the future has already arrived. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.” If you think that the federal government will never go to a virtual work environment, just look around.

Thousands of federal employees are already working this way — albeit only some of the time and often without support from their managers or team members. Remember the blizzards of 2010? The original cost estimate of shutting down the federal government was $100 million in lost productivity a day, but OPM reduced the estimate by roughly $30 million. Why? Because of the 30 percent of federal employees who teleworked.

As part of its workplace flexibility pilots, OPM discovered that all but five people who work out of its office in Pittsburgh were already teleworking. So OPM asked the remaining five to do the same then proceeded to close the office. Cost savings? A cool $200,000 a year.

It’s time to take what is already happening in an ad hoc fashion and make it an intentional, consistent way of operating. The new norm should be: Work is not where you go, it’s what you do.

Once you think of work this way, then it’s easy to see how managers and their teams need to be more explicit and transparent about performance expectations and more coordinated about how to meet those expectations. Management by walking around is replaced by managing to results — and giving the team a lot of say in how it achieves those outcomes. Organizations that embrace this way of working have more engaged workers and achieve greater results.

If you are still wondering “why now?,” the answer is simple. The world of work has changed irreversibly, but the ways of work have not kept pace. Government agencies are being asked to do more — faster, with greater transparency and a more complex set of stakeholders. All this with a workforce more varied than ever before — by gender, generation, background, family structure and even aspiration.

Information technology jobs are one example. Cybersecurity, cloud computing — they all require highly skilled people doing work in new ways. As a result, according to a recent CIO Council report, “Agencies face a daunting task of recruiting and retaining young workers to fill computer-related positions as older technology specialists retire, a trend that requires managers to drastically change long-established bureaucratic work environments and traditions.”

What does this mean? Telecommuting is a good first step toward a more flexible work environment, but it represents only a fraction of what needs to change. We need a fundamentally new model for thinking about the workplace that acknowledges the sweeping changes in the workforce and society. We can’t change the result without changing the model.

In the private sector, we call this new model the "corporate lattice." Lattice thinking means, for example, that we move away from work as a place you go to do what you do. It also acknowledges that the typical linear, vertical career path, epitomized by the “climbing the corporate ladder" metaphor, is not for everybody. Many workers, particularly the millennials, prefer multidirectional career paths that allow them to dial down or dial up depending on their particular circumstances and give them a breadth of experiences and transferable skills.

For the federal government, such an approach might be termed “From GS to GPS,” where GPS stands for a "great place to serve." One of the attributes of GPS is a flexible work environment, in which flexibility is not about a specific program or a set of benefits or letting some people work differently some of the time.

Instead it means changing the norms at work, creating an operating model more customized at the individual level and more adaptive at the organizational level.

To help accelerate the change, we welcome your stories and ideas for how to make such an approach simply “the way things are done around here.”

Reader comments

Editor's note: Readers' comments have been edited for length, clarity and style.

Road Weary

If you currently pay me for eight hours of government work, you're actually using up nine or more hours of my time, based on my commute. Let me work at home and my commute drops to one minute at each end of my day. Between the hours and the personal savings in gas and vehicle wear and tear, I've effectively been given a raise! Those who fear I'll cheat the system are most likely those who cheat it now.

— Dave

Smoke 'Em Out

It seems to me that managing for results and face time are two completely different concepts. One way to sort this out and make it work — for everybody but the slackers, and most workplaces have a few — is to do two things:

  1. Document which jobs cannot be done from an off-site location at this time and the reasons why.
  2. Translate the results we're managing for into descriptions of concrete deliverables, and rewrite employee performance plans to line up with them.

Then it's up to supervisors and managers to supervise and manage. One of the effects this will have is to smoke out the people who should not be managing. They can then be reassigned and replaced with people who can.

— Anonymous

Keep Flexible

Folks, one size does not fit all. Comments such as "I think teleworking is a great idea if it is fair for every government employee to participate" miss a fundamental truth about work: Different jobs have different requirements. Managers, who are accountable for results, need the flexibility to manage for those results.

— Newton White

Security Willies

I wonder about permitting them to use their own computers for this work because of security and general access privileges concerns. We continue to read about missing data left on hard disks and flash drives, but what assurances do we have concerning their home computers? We need to consider viruses, bots and other such situations, possibly even kids. I don't think telework should stop, but maybe [it should only be allowed] on a government computer.

— Stuart Wilson

Widget Watch

It all boils down to this: Are they paying for my attendance or my performance? If I am paid to be at a given place for a given period of time, I should be there. If I am paid to produce a widget, don't worry about if I am sitting on the bed or in a chair — worry about the quality of the widget.

— Anonymous

Industrial Mindset

From what I am seeing, many managers think we are still in the middle of the Industrial Revolution, when a worker has to be eyed working or he is goofing off. We don't need elaborate keystroke or log-on monitoring systems to check if people are working. All we need to do is see if the work as specified by the job description, priorities and projects does indeed get done. Butt-in-chair management should have gone out with the sweatshop. Managers not worth their salt think that way. In this modern age when people can work from anyplace, it is not how they do their work, it is what is accomplished. If a report is compete, readable and as required, the employee did [his or her] job. It makes no difference if they cut the grass, played with kids, the report got done. Do we pay people just to sit mindlessly staring at screens all day, or do we respect their integrity to get work done?

— Thomas J. Kesolits

Speeds and Feeds

Trusting your people to do their work isn't the issue. The issues are the speed of a person's connection at home and their dedicated office space. We have people who telecommute one day a week who live 10 minutes from their dedicated office space. Their home Internet connections are a fraction of the speed compared to their office connection. Consequently their work productivity is greatly reduced based on connection speed alone. Additionally, their dedicated office spaces — cubicle and offices — are still being heated/cooled while they are telecommuting. Combine these two items, and telecommuting scenarios are a waste of taxpayer money.

— Anonymous

Quiet, Please

I have been teleworking from home for several years and find that I get more work done. I have fewer distractions from the office and more quiet time to think without interruptions. I just received an award for my excellent performance. My supervisor reaches me by e-mail, phone, cell phone or fax. We don't have any problems communicating. The logging and accountability of a sound teleworking system will tell you when the users connect and if they worked or not. There is considerably more accountability than seeing an employee who walks through the door and then, for all you know, plays Solitaire all day.

— Ari

No Problem

I have been a federal manager for 20 years or so, and for several of them, I managed staff long distance. I had at one point a staff of 15 individuals all around the country and only four in the same building with me. I never had any problems, and using the advantages of technology, such as phone and e-mail, I was able to track and know who was working and signed on. All the complaints seem to come from people who want to micromanage. To me, that is silly indeed.

— Anonymous

Anyone There?

The biggest problem I have with teleworking, at least in my current position, is that my supervisor doesn't make any efforts to keep me in the loop. Work assignments and communications are limited at best. Last year I mentioned, on several occasions, that my workload was too light. My supervisor's comment was that he was too busy to worry about my workload or to provide instructions on what needs to be done. This was not a problem, except that I was dinged on my performance report on quantity of work…. If telework is going to work properly, then everyone needs to communicate. With the technology available today, there is no reason a supervisor should be too busy to send an e-mail or to call and provide some sort of direction on where your efforts should be concentrated.

— Anonymous

A-ha!

At a conference several years ago, I was pitching telework to a federal manager and used the example of snow days. His reply [was that] people see these as days off and will not embrace the idea of working...they are entitled to the day(s) off. This was an "a-ha!" moment for me. Clearly, there are different motivations and issues for telework, but it's time for the federal government to embrace what so many commercial organizations have done and that is to enable people to work from home, if for no other reason than to help build resiliency into our [continuity-of-operations] strategy.

— Dan

Human Nature

The bottom line? Abstract people are very comfortable working remotely, like collaborating with folks around the world has always been a big part of the research community dating back to pre-electricity days. Everyone else has to meet with their sewing circle, the more often the better, and will never feel comfortable with telework. That is just human nature, and even the complete goof-offs in government — folks you would expect would love telework — shun it.

— oracle2world

Crafty Customers

No doubt we have to pay more attention to performance and results, but the premise is a bit idealistic and theoretical, too — not to mention the spurious jab at federal managers. This shouldn't be an either/or choice. While we have a majority of the workforce that can take to this, don't forget we have a not insignificant percentage of employees who are playing a de minimis game with us. Knowing where they are on the job and in their cube is essential to getting at least some performance out of them.

— Steve

Old Warriors

I think increasing telework numbers is more problematic working in a military environment. Many senior-level managers are retired or former veterans and are not as accommodating when it comes to telework. I was fortunate because my former supervisor, who was a retired service member, thought outside the box and recommended I telework. That was nine years ago, and today, I work from home twice each week. I am one of the few employees who is able to work this way.

— Anonymous

What’s in Store?

So please tell me, just where in this utopian environment of telework does the actual work product reside? It is impossible to control and archive records efficiently without a central repository, aka, file cabinets and network file servers…. And what happens in the event of government data being stolen during a home burglary? The computer and all records contained on it are now lost.

— Michael D. Long

The comment about needing a physical storage place for work products and the risk of losing electronic information if computer equipment at home is stolen assumes a paperwork process and reflects a lack of awareness of available hardware and software solutions. My state agency's work process is virtually paperless, in large part due to an electronic case record system that is server-driven. There is no paper work product to be stored physically. As for hardware, we use thin-client devices that are also server-driven, so there is zero local information to be lost in the event that the device is stolen.

— Jen Steele

Featured

Reader comments

Mon, Jun 28, 2010 Washington, DC

One thing I wonder about moving all employees to teleworkers is how to train new hires. We see stories time and time again about the impending retirement wave and the need to hire MANY new workers all at once. How will the new hires be trained and mentored when everyone is working remotely?

Mon, Jun 21, 2010 RayW

While I like the idea of being able to work at home, not too many folks have secure lines and dedicated computers that are not used for anything but work. And as we have seen from many of our briefings, the Chinese, Arabs, Russian Mafia, and others are dedicated to sucking our data. Even in a secure environment like the "locked down" systems we have in the DoD they get through. Yes, it saves folks time to not have to travel 200 miles to get to work, but they are the ones who chose to live there instead of closer to work. I personally do not want my personal data spread out any more than the fools who handle it have already done (yes I was recently notified, again, that my personal identity theft data got distributed to the wrong places).

If it is non-personal data and not related to any confidential or sensitive material, then no problem with working from home. But if it is data that someone can use to mine or others detriment, than make them go to a more secure location.

Wed, Jun 16, 2010 NCR

I worked for an agency that teleworked through the DC snowstorms. We were very productive - even senior management. That agency is a trail blazer when it comes to telework. I have since moved on to another DoD agency, in the same type of position, that does not believe in telework. There are still govt agencies that do not embrace change or technology. There has to be some kind of enforcement from the top down to ensure telework is available to those positions able to do so. It saves not only the Govt money, but the employee also.

Wed, Jun 16, 2010 USAF

I had as case several years ago when due to an injury, I did my job by teleworking--mostly sitting on my bed. I had great support from the office's computer support group, as well as counterparts at the program prime contractor--who called me at home for teleconferences so I could participate but wouldn't have to deal with long distance bills. My co-worker/s reported to my day-to-day supervisor that I was meeting all suspenses and getting everything done. In fact, I found that I was getting more done in less time than it normally took in the office--because there were fewer distractions and less noise. My "reward" was that about a week before I was due to return to the office, my "official rater" retroactively switched the record for all of the time I had spent working, to sick leave. To my request for accommodation of a temporary disability, I was basically told NO WAY IN HELL. In other offices since, when I have asked about telework I have gotten either refusal or dead silence. One of the major problems with respect to telework has frequently been reported in fora like this--management insecurity. The insecure managers can't seem to understand that those who show confidence in their people are likely to get more from them. The non-performers will show up in either case; it's then a question of management's willingness (or not) to deal with problems.

Tue, Jun 15, 2010 Anonymous Maryland

Wouldn't the government be embarrassed if taxpayers really knew that buildings could be vacated and the total cost of government administration could be greatly reduced with a serious, well-coordinated flexiplace work model? Why doesn't it happen? There are several reasons, I think. First, federal jobs are part of the stimulus package and a significant part of the national economy. I believe that about one in six people in the country are employed by a government entity, and more are consultants and contractors who might as well be on a government payroll. The number of federal workers aren't related to the actual workloads. On the job, some employees aren't competent or motivated enough to perform without the daily structure of their competent co-workers whose attitudes and skill-sets actually carry the mission. Many managers are afraid of telework because their contributions consist of delegating work and calling meetings. Flexiplace exposes the built-in characteristics of the federal workplace, which were designed to have large pools of worker bees supervised constantly by their superiors. The team approach to work is another reason that flexiplace is a tough sell, as the weak look stronger within the context of the team. Flexiplace highlights the strength of the individual, and exposes incompetence, both in managers and in workers. It challenges the teamwork model, which has been the mantra of the contemporary federal workplace, at the expense of the strength of talented individuals.

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