John Berry: Federal managers 'the last piece of the puzzle' in telework

The success of telework hinges on federal managers, who should not only support their remote workers but keep an open mind about finding creative approaches to challenges that arise, said the Obama administration’s top workforce official.

Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry delivered the March 13 keynote at the Federal Managers Association’s 74th National Convention & Management Training Seminar in Arlington, Va. His speech emphasized the importance of federal managers and how their role is not only to spearhead the workforce but to steer it in the right direction as times evolve.

“To reap the benefits of telework, we need [federal managers], we need to practice, we need to know out systems and personnel can handle work from remote locations, before disaster hits, whether it be natural or otherwise,” he said.

Thanks to telework, OPM, along with the General Services Administration and other agencies, has reduced its real estate footprint. By allowing more employees to work remotely, the agency was able to close down a call center in Pittsburgh, Pa., saving $200,000 a year, Berry said.

“All that teleworking, the potential savings, as well as the increased resilience of our operations counts on you,” he said, referring to the roomful of government managers. “I know it can feel like a risk; many managers can get nervous about employees they just can’t swing by and see and peer over their shoulder.”
Last year’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey revealed that one-fourth of all government workers reported that although their role permits them to telework, their supervisors don’t. Those who believed management is the only obstacle to telework scored lower on all the other survey questions than those who were allowed to telework, Berry said.

“It comes down to being the simple matter of trust,” Berry said. “People who don’t feel entrusted aren’t going to be happy. People whose duties present legitimate barrier to telework tend to be understanding.”

Managers not only need to discuss with employees telework eligibility but they need to be willing to explain why certain duties need to be done in the office. They also should be willing to hear proposals and creative solutions to problems that may arise, Berry said.

“Technology and society are moving, and we can’t afford to just sit still and allow it to happen,” he said. “We need to face that future with open minds and good problem-solving skills.”Berry also gave a nod to his GSA colleague Administrator Martha Johnson for what he called “very cutting-edge stuff” in telework, citing hoteling and “social days” when teams get together and interact face to face “and create that support structure that recognizes all of the needs of a human being.”

“The technology, the security issues have all been resolved,” Berry said. “You still have to think it through and prepare for it but . . . you can make this work. Now the last piece of the puzzle is our managerial support to help define [telework] and maintain productivity, maintain services and increase out resilience.”

About the Author

Camille Tuutti is a former FCW staff writer who covered federal oversight and the workforce.

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Reader comments

Mon, Mar 26, 2012

In an effort to be good stewards of taxpayers' money, I believe a work-at-home strategy is the best solution to reduce one of the biggest expenses the government has (rent). This not only reduces rent, but also decreases staff years managing government-owned and government-rented properties. The fact is, many agencies already have employees who are managed off-site, so it is not a totally new idea. My recommendations include mandatory training for all managers that give them tools and ideas on how to manage off-site employees or those who work-at-home. Additionally, facility functions of all agencies should be the first to implement the work-at-home stratgy. This sets a good example both in rent dollars and energy savings and shows the other agency managers they are willing to feel the painful change first. However, it appears that facility function managers have the same anxieties our customer managers have--how to ensure employees are working even when you can't "see" them. Overall, if the change is good for field functions, it's good for many office functions too, even if that unfortunately means a reduction in facility-related staff years.

Wed, Mar 14, 2012

Managers in my agency seem to be of the mindset that if they can't see you, then you must not be working. In my role as well as most of my coworkers, there is no reason that we should not be allowed to telework. Enough complaining to management is finally getting us one day of telework per pay period starting in a couple months. Oh and these managers telework quite frequently themselves.

Wed, Mar 14, 2012 Sam Davis

Good article – we could not agree more that the success of telework hinges on federal managers. The better trained they are to deal with unique issues around managing teleworkers, the more comfortable they’ll be in enabling their workforce to telework more consistently. And the benefits are clear: in addition to reducing real estate footprints, we’ve seen that telework also improves employee morale, and can help increase an agency’s retention rates. Berry’s emphasis on the importance of federal managers is key. As he says, we can’t afford to sit still as technology and society are moving forward. Leadership development training for federal managers is a crucial element in the advancement of telework that should be implemented in every organization. Sam Davis, VP, AMA Enterprise Government Solutions

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