Managing teleworkers can be business as usual

Fancy new appraisal systems are not necessary, but good supervisory skills are

When it comes to managing teleworkers, agencies might already have most of what they need, even if they don’t realize it.

Discussions of telework as a separate management enterprise suggest that supervisors will need to institute special review techniques to oversee remote workers and keep them productive and accountable. But some government telework pioneers say that isn’t so, and they monitor their teleworkers the same way they manage on-site employees.

At the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, “performance expectations are the same for those working on the Alexandria campus and those working at home,” said Danette Campbell, senior telework adviser at USPTO.

That approach seems to be the norm at many of the agencies that have already embraced telework. Now it’s a matter of law for all agencies. Section 6503 of the Telework Enhancement Act, signed into law last year, states that teleworkers and nonteleworkers must be treated identically when it comes to job appraisals and work requirements.

Telework pros have discovered they don’t need specialized tools or routines to track teleworkers’ performance. USPTO, for example, has an application that tracks the quality and timeliness of work performed by patent and trademark examiners, but it uses the application to manage both teleworkers and in-office employees.

Elsewhere, the Defense Information Systems Agency uses an administrative support system for handling employees’ requests to telework, but that application doesn’t deal with how remote workers perform their jobs. That’s part of supervisors’ routine responsibilities, a DISA spokeswoman said.

Discovering that telework doesn’t require special treatment sounds like good news for agencies. No one is hankering to create and operate a parallel set of management processes and systems. But managers whose employee appraisals are primarily based on attendance will have to rethink their approach.

“Managers need to focus on the value of the work output rather than the individual’s physical presence in the office,” said Cindy Auten, general manager at the Telework Exchange, a federal telework advocacy group.

Clear performance objectives and standards, while important in any work arrangement, are an absolute necessity in teleworking environments, said John Palguta, vice president of policy at the Partnership for Public Service.

“This doesn’t make the management job easier,” he said. “It actually makes the manager do the hard work of management.”

Spreading influence?

Because the goal is to use uniform methods to evaluate all employees, telework could have the unintended effect of influencing the wider adoption of performance-based measures for workers of all kinds, said Scott Overmyer, a professor at Baker College who helped write a recent report on telework for the IBM Center for the Business of Government.

That approach links worker pay more closely to productivity, rather than seniority and attendance.

Performance management advocates in the federal government have been pursuing that cause for years independent of telework initiatives, but the need to manage remote workers could provide an additional boost, Overmyer said.

Meanwhile, Palguta said telework could have the valuable, though more modest, benefit of nudging managers to polish their supervisory skills.

“If you have a few managers not focusing on the right things, telework can force them to do that,” he said. “That’s one of the hidden benefits of telework.”

Automating the administrative chores

Setting up a special system or routine to monitor teleworkers’ productivity is not necessary. However, some agencies find that it is helpful to have an online application to handle the administrative aspects of telework, such as scheduling.

The Defense Information Systems Agency has such an application in its Open Source Corporate Management Information System. The tool lets employees apply to telework, create a schedule, complete the required agreement and safety checklist, and submit telework requests to their supervisors. The supervisors can then approve or reject applications or ask employees to modify them.

“The program manager can see the overall picture of how many applications are approved, disapproved or pending, and break it out by organization,” said Aaron Glover, special assistant to DISA’s director of manpower, personnel and security and the agency’s telework expert.

OSCMIS is available to agencies outside the Defense Department through an open-source license.

About the Author

John Moore is a freelance writer based in Syracuse, N.Y.

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