Telework culture lagging: survey

The federal government has a way to go if it is going to establish a culture favorable to telework, according to a new survey of federal managers.

Only 35 percent of the managers in the survey believed that their agencies support teleworking by their employees. Forty-seven percent said they don’t think their agencies support it; 18 percent weren’t sure.

The results of the survey flout the efforts in recent years of Congress and the executive branch to promote telework as a way of helping to achieve important public policy goals, including improving the government’s ability to recruit and retain new workers, and supporting agency continuity-of-operations plans.

In 2000, Congress passed a law requiring agencies to establish policies under which eligible employees may telework “to the maximum extent possible” without diminished performance. However, a 2005 survey by the Office of Personnel Management revealed that only 19 percent of employees eligible to telework take advantage of that option.

The results of the latest study reflect “a lack of inertia” on teleworking in government, said Joel Brunson, president of Tandberg of New York, which underwrote the survey. “When you compare and contrast [the results] with the public law that was signed in 2000…it just seems, whoa, we’re not there yet.”

To boost the use of telework, researchers recommended educating managers at all levels of government on the benefits of telework.

On the plus side, the survey found that 75 percent of managers who telework themselves are inclined to be favorable to teleworking. In addition, 63 percent of supervisors who manage teleworkers but don’t telework themselves had a positive attitude. In contrast, only 54 percent of managers who don’t manage teleworkers were sympathetic to teleworking.

Encouraging more managers to telework through manager-specific pilot programs will help promote the adoption telework, researchers said. “It’s a ‘try it, you’ll like it’ type of concept,” Brunson said.

“Managers are wary about the change [to telework], but once it happens, they are more receptive to it,” said Thomas Richards, acting executive director of the Federal Managers Association, which conducted the survey with the Telework Exchange, a public-private partnership. “I think that’s telling about the cultural changes that need to take place in order to get this implemented.”

Nonetheless, managers in the poll still expressed fear of losing control over their teleworking employees and concern about their level of productivity, two factors frequently cited as inhibitors to telework.

These concerns were even more widespread among managers who are experienced teleworkers. Managers who telework themselves were more concerned about productivity (73 percent) and loss of control (82 percent) than managers who don’t manage teleworkers (productivity, 63 percent; loss of control, 77 percent).

“I can tell you from our experience and from the managers I’ve talked with about this, productivity concerns are high across the board,” Richards said. “They’re high because we’re working in a results-oriented government.” In their recommendations, researchers suggested that agencies implement performance-based review processes to assuage fears about productivity and control.

Managers in the survey also identified lack of face-to-face contact (32 percent) and the inability to sit around a table and collaborate (22 percent) as the top management challenges to teleworking. Researchers proposed that agencies stress the need for periodic face-to-face contact as well as deploy technologies that “mimic face-to-face communication,” including videoconferencing, to address those concerns.

The study, “Face to Face With Management Reality: a Telework Research Report,” is available at http://www.teleworkexchange.com.

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