Managers fret over telework issues

Concerns over productivity and manager/employee communication impede telework progress

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Agency managers continue to worry that allowing employees to work from home or other off-site locations will lead to lower productivity and other problems, according to several recent surveys. The fears are unfounded, proponents of the practice say. But they emphasize that telework plans must be carefully designed and implemented so employees still have structure when they are not in the office.

“To just say, ‘I’m going to let somebody telework,’ and not provide the education behind it is a reason managers express concern,” said Joel Brunson, president of Tandberg Federal. “I would encourage more managers to become teleworkers themselves. You learn a lot.”

Tandberg, a developer of videoconferencing equipment, conducted a survey with the Telework Exchange that revealed continued unease about telework among agency managers.

Brunson pointed out that telework doesn’t mean employees never go to the office. Many of them work from remote locations only one or two days a week.

Market Connections conducted a survey with findings similar to those from the Telework Exchange survey. “We were hoping we would see a little more of an improvement than we did,” said Lisa Dezzutti, president of the research firm. Only  21 percent of employees surveyed said their supervisors encouraged telework.
“So much of it is a cultural change,” Dezzutti said. “It’s a comfort issue, and in many cases with senior management, they’re not used to working that way. It is going to continue to evolve over time.”

However, there are success stories. Dan Devlin, assistant inspector general for audit at the Treasury Department’s Inspector General for Tax Administration Office, was part of a team that put together the office’s telework policy five years ago. The Office of Audit has about 300 employees.  At any given time, about 200 of them are taking part in the telework program, Devlin said.

Under the policy, employees have to apply for permission to telework. They might be granted privileges for one to two days a week, three to five days a week, or on a task-by-task basis. Employees must complete a mandatory training course on how to work from home effectively. Their managers are responsible for giving them well-defined assignments and deadlines.

“That was the biggest transition piece,” Devlin said. “A lot of our managers really sharpened their task management skills.”

It also helps that the employees are mostly seasoned professionals who do high-caliber work, he added. Part of the application process includes evaluating whether the prospective teleworker has a personality suited to working productively without supervision or office interaction.

Still, the program succeeds because it has tight controls, Devlin said. If an employee is allowed to work from home and then doesn’t perform well, “we yank ’em in a minute,” he said. “When employees participate in the program, they sign a contract that stipulates exactly the expectations. It stipulates the frequency and manner in which the employee communicates with the office.”

The program was originally intended to mobilize the workforce so personnel could travel to remote Internal Revenue Service offices around the country and work from them. Allowing employees the flexibility to work from home was a side benefit at first. But after the 2001 terrorist attacks, the value of telework for disaster preparedness became clear, he said.

Kevin Mahoney, associate director of human capital leadership and merit system accountability at the Office of Personnel Management, said managers who are nervous about telework are basing their worries on misperception rather than reality.

“Employees who telework do their jobs well,” Mahoney said. “As a manager, I would have a concern over productivity, but it’s a concern you have to manage through. It wouldn’t prevent me, and I do have a lot of employees who do telework.”

An internal survey by the Office of Audit showed that most agency managers reported workers’ productivity and performance increased or, at worst, stayed the same when the employees worked remotely. None reported any decline in productivity, Devlin said.

Continuity of operations is one important reason for telework plans, but Mahoney said employee morale and the ability to accommodate family needs are also important.  He encouraged agencies to include telework in their COOP planning.

“OPM not too long ago had a series of events where members of the organization teleworked from home for two or three days so we could see what would happen in a pandemic event where people have to stay home and work,” he said. “We encourage agencies to have exercises, because when the emergency happens you’re not going to have time to practice.”
Telework challengesA 2006 teleworking study by research firm Market Connections lists the top challenges for agencies that want to create effective telework programs and the percentage of respondents who view them as challenges:
  • Isolation of teleworkers: 32 percent
  • Management resistance: 45 percent
  • Lack of visibility for teleworking employees: 38 percent
  • Security: 35 percent
  • Information technology service and support: 32 percent
Source: Market Connections

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