By Steve Kelman
In order to maintain agency work during sequestration, managers need to be empowered to deal with poor performing employees, Steve Kelman writes. (Stock image)
Over the past few weeks, I have periodically felt slightly weird in writing my blog posts. Here I was continuing to write my normal posts about how to improve organizational performance and management, as if the situation in agencies was just proceeding as normal, while many of my readers were focused on the possibility of furloughs and the other disruptions of an increasingly certain sequestration.
So the first thing I want to do in this post is to say to my readers in and around government that, as one taxpayer, I am grateful for what you do and saddened that you are about to be run over by a rogue bus. As I say to my executive education classes, there is no group for whom the gap between what people are actually achieving and accomplishing, and what folks out there think you are achieving and accomplishing, is so great as for most U.S. civil servants. I’m not sure what my sympathy will buy – especially for those employees who really can’t afford furlough-induced pay cuts. But I want to express it anyway.
At the same time, this wouldn’t be my blog, and Steve wouldn’t be Steve, if I didn’t also discuss this in a managerial challenge context. I think agencies need to be ready for the likelihood that sequestration itself will last for a while, and that, even more importantly, tight agency budgets will last for a very long time even after the sequester is "fixed."
In this situation, as far as personnel expenses (S&E in government budget lingo) are concerned, agencies simply must look for alternatives to furloughs for wide swaths of staff. Organizations, and managers, will need to start – and should be starting now, on the assumption this fiscal environment is not going away – thinking more strategically about how to bring down personnel costs.
For managers and the human resources system, this means becoming more serious about taking on poor performers. For organizations, this means making tough choices about units that need to downsize or even be eliminated.
Most federal managers will say that they could absorb a 10 percent personnel cost cutback without too much impact, if they could choose how to take it – that is, by getting rid of poor performers. Needless to say, in the real world of federal personnel law, this is incredibly easier to say than to do. In this environment, some federal managers will be willing to endure the hassle, but probably some system changes are needed to help managers who would like to act.
With hiring declining in this environment, shouldn’t there be some HR staff resources that can be freed up to help managers with the process of getting poor performers to shape up or ship out? Isn’t this a time for OPM to examine its regulations in this area to see how much the process can be streamlined and deregulated without statutory change?
The bottom line is that the alternative to dealing with poor performers is to have the brunt of the cutbacks fall on good performers. This is wrong morally, and it increases the organizational performance penalty from the cutbacks.
A second alternative to furloughing a lot of people is a smaller number of Reductions in Force. RIFs reflect the reality of a permanently tighter budget environment. The heads of units need to start looking for ways to re-engineer business processes to reduce unnecessary steps or in other ways take out staff requirements. Higher-level managers need to ask whether there are whole units that, in this environment, simply can’t be justified and should be eliminated. Again, keep in mind that the alternative is worse: an unfair, impossible world of furloughs.
Posted on Feb 28, 2013 at 3:21 PM4 comments
On Feb. 26, the New York Times reported in a front-page story that the new Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer had issued a memo rescinding the company’s policy on telework (which the article quaintly calls “telecommuting”) and ordering workers back to the office. Given the expansion of telework in the federal government, and the suggestion that this is a wave of the future that only trogdolyte managers resist, the story is an interesting one.
What is going on?
The basic story behind Yahoo’s decision is that the company believes that having workers interact with each other face to face promotes both collaboration and innovation, two features Yahoo wants to see in its workplace as the company tries to turn itself around. (The article notes that the new Yahoo policy is simply a more extreme version of a Google company policy that discourages telework.)
The argument makes sense. We can communicate better with others when we see facial expressions, body language, and when we can have the banter that comes naturally to face-to-face communication. We build social ties and learn a lot at the water cooler. And innovation is often born when ideas and thoughts confront each other in real time, with real-time reactions, and that is also done best face to face.
But telework has advantages too from an organizational perspective. Research shows, as the article notes, that telework is often worse for innovation, but better for productivity at fixed jobs. Organizations get to downsize their real estate portfolios (a hot theme in government that will become hotter with tight budget times), and productive work is not lost to commuting time.
Telework is hard when there are no metrics to judge an employee’s work. These are the situations – probably often unnecessarily used as a crutch in government organizations – where a supervisor will want to keep an eye on employees to make sure they’re not loafing. The flip side is that the better the metrics the less need for the supervisor’s watchful eye on the employee’s body – the supervisor can look at the employee’s work product or output.
From an employee satisfaction perspective, having a telework option is nice, even if a given employee chooses never or seldom to use it. (To be frank, many professors frequently do what we call “working from home,” aka telework, although I personally like to go into the office when I’m in Boston.)
The bottom line, in my view, is that there is not a telework one-size-fits-all. If Yahoo really wants collaboration and innovation, maybe it should prohibit telework, at least for the employees it wants to be collaborative and innovative. But other organizations, or jobs within organizations, will likely benefit from telework.
Readers, what do you think? What have been your organizational experiences with telework?
Posted on Feb 27, 2013 at 12:01 PM7 comments
Justin Herman, new media manager at the GSA’s Center for Excellence in Digital Government, shown speaking at GSA's Social Media Week in February. (FCW photo by Frank Konkel)
FCW reporter Frank Konkel wrote an interesting article on FCW.com on efforts growing out of a working group inside the General Services Administration to develop performance measures for government social media sites.
I found the article fascinating from two perspectives. First, the metrics themselves look sensible. For example, they suggest tracking "conversions" (when people click through from the post to additional linked content), "loyalty" (when first-time visitors return), and "customer service" (timeliness in responding to requests). I am guessing many of these metrics grow out of private-sector practice in tracking social media effectiveness; and I say this as a kudos for learning from others, not a knock for lack of originality. There are too many home-grown approaches in government to issues that have perfectly good private-sector counterparts. I am also hoping that the data to track many of the metrics presented is generated either free or at very low cost.
These metrics also lend themselves to performance improvement – figuring out how to do a better job. Companies are already frequently running quick experiments for their webpages or social media offerings, randomly exposing visitors to different versions of a message, or positioning a message at different parts of a screen, in order to see, for example, which produces more click-throughs. Government needs to start doing these kinds of experiments (in a scientific sense – two different treatments to randomly chosen groups, to look to see whether the result is different) in a lot of areas, and experiments involving social media effectiveness is a good place to start.
But this article is significant even for people who are not involved at all in social media. It is a sign that performance measurement – in this year, the twentieth anniversary of the passage of the Government Performance and Results Act in 1993 – is now becoming taken for granted as a way to do business in government. I recently interviewed a subcabinet agency head, and he noted that he thought his agency had now gotten to the point where briefings for new leaders would include the organization’s major performance measures, the targets for performance improvement in those measures, and the historical performance over the last few years. This is a revolution in government, and a good one. Performance measurement has progressed during one Republican presidential administration and two Democratic ones, suggesting that management reform really benefits from bipartisan support.
As we approach sequestration, it is a fair question to ask whether agencies can afford to spend any of their scarce resources on measuring their performance, rather than just performing. My answer would be that in tight budget times, performance measurement is more necessary than ever, because we have to try to get better at what we do not just by throwing additional dollars around, but by improving efficiency and effectiveness. By helping organizations learn how to do a better job, by focusing them on the most-important activities, and by motivating people to try harder, performance measurement is a powerful tool for lean times.
Posted on Feb 22, 2013 at 12:50 PM1 comments