Making federal managers into successful teleworkers

Experts share advice on how managers can telework and still do their jobs well

One of the biggest challenges to implementing telework policies in the federal government remains manager resistance, according to the Office of Personnel Management.

That could be because supervisors and managers have been less likely to telework than rank-and-file employees, so many higher-ups lack the firsthand experience that could make them better advocates for home-based work arrangements.

In their “Status of Telework in the Federal Government” report sent to Congress in February, OPM officials say, in part, that “it is important for leadership to consider the message relayed to employees when managers and other leaders choose not to telework. Modeling telework behavior sends a clear message of support and may provide one effective strategy for efforts to expand federal telework.”

Now, with the passage of the Telework Enhancement Act last year, there is a strong push in the government to increase the number of employees — managers included — who telework on a regular basis.

Managers willing to give telework a try might discover that being physically present in the office isn’t the nonnegotiable job requirement they thought it was. With a few accommodations and the appropriate mix of discipline and flexibility, managers can even thrive despite the reduction in face-to-face time with their employees.

Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it

Cindy Auten, general manager of the public/private partnership Telework Exchange, said managers who are on the fence about teleworking should try it and see if it works for them.

The first decision managers need to make is what kind of telework schedule fits their needs. A full-time telework arrangement might not be ideal for managers.

They should outline how they’re going to work in a remote environment and consider what about their routine is going to change and what will stay the same, Auten said. They should also seek online collaboration tools that can support and enhance the telework experience.

Those preparations will help managers establish clear expectations for themselves and their employees, she said. Managers also should be willing to test their telework arrangement for a few weeks and reassess their situation often to make sure it’s working.

“We want to make sure people know that telework is not an all-or-nothing decision,” Auten added.

Flexibility doesn’t end once a manager commits to a telework routine. For example, even if a manager is scheduled for a telework day, he or she might need to go into the office at the last minute for a meeting.

Plan for the previously unplanned

Flexibility is important, but managers who want to telework also need to learn how to balance that with a well-planned calendar.

Because teleworking eliminates the chance to take part in informal conversations around the office, managers should schedule regular interactions with their employees, said Adam Cole, director of the government practice at the Corporate Executive Board.

Managers must prepare for those interactions by thinking about what they want to accomplish and making a list or agenda. “Preparation becomes a focal point for interaction,” Cole said.

And because meetings or other scheduled interactions might not allow managers to provide employees with feedback, managers should set aside time to tell employees they are doing a good job or inform them of areas where improvement is needed. Cole said managers can schedule catch-up sessions with employees after big meetings to offer a progress report rather than have the meeting be the resolution.

In addition, managers should be accessible to their employees during agreed-upon business hours and not just work whenever it is convenient for them, experts said.

Managers further bear the responsibility of developing relationships with their employees, which some might think is harder to do if a manager is not physically in the office. But Cole said managers can still connect with their employees by starting all conversations — whether on the phone or online — with a personal anecdote. Asking an employee about his or her weekend, for example, presents the opportunity to speak on a personal level, he said.

Be careful what you say — and how you say it

Given their reliance on the phone and e-mail while teleworking, managers must be even more thoughtful about the language they use. “Those are imperfect communications vehicles,” Cole said. “It’s hard to read intent or motivation or personality [in] an e-mail.”

Federal managers have to think carefully about how they craft e-mail messages so they don’t lead to misunderstandings or misdirection from a project execution standpoint, he added. 

Bruce Tulgan, a leadership and management expert and founder of RainmakerThinking, added that federal managers who want to telework must also set ground rules with those up the chain of command. “Get clarity from your boss on your team’s mission,” Tulgan advised.

Experts agreed that managers should establish a plan for communicating with their bosses and employees and make sure those conversations happen frequently. Tulgan said managers should have a written explanation of how often such manager/employee meetings will take place and in what forum.

Instead of managers setting a daily or weekly agenda for a project on their own, Tulgan said it might be beneficial to involve employees in the planning process. “Ask your direct reports to send you a checklist for [a] particular responsibility,” he said.

In the end, federal managers who reap the benefits of teleworking while continuing to excel at their jobs will take to heart the principles of flexibility, structure and discipline.

How to write better e-mail messages

A federal manager’s ability to write clear and concise e-mail messages takes on a new level of importance when he or she chooses to telework. In most instances, managers will rely on e-mail to convey the bulk of information to their employees, which leaves little room for messages that are confusing, unfocused or, worse, offensive.

The following tips — courtesy of the Corporate Executive Board — guarantee that your communications will be professional whether you work in or outside the office.

  1. Compose a subject line that conveys the content and urgency of your message. Examples include “Action Required: Project Plans” and “Request for a Decision: Executive Committee Meeting.”
  2. In replying to or forwarding a message, change the subject line to reflect a changed subject, if appropriate.
  3. Be concise in your responses, though not unnecessarily brief. Respond with sufficient information for the recipient to understand you.
  4. Focus on only one topic in each message. Keep messages clear, brief, and easy to file and retrieve.
  5. Be professional. Even though e-mail is relatively informal, it still requires thought and organization. Ask yourself: What do I want to say? What do I intend the message to accomplish? What action or reaction do I want?
  6. Avoid sending too many for-your-information messages that require no action on the part of the recipient.
  7. Follow any important message that might evoke emotion or misunderstanding with a telephone call. You might not be fully aware of the impact of the message unless you speak with and listen to the recipients.
  8. Don’t shout. Be mindful that your readers might feel they are being yelled at if you send a message typed in all capital letters.

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