The telework era: better in theory than in practice

Don't look now but the new era of telework is uncannily similar to the old one.

Last year brought passage of the Telework Enhancement Act, which requires agencies to more clearly define which employees are eligible to work remotely and create plans to help them do it. Then in April of this year, Office of Management and Budget Director Jacob Lew issued a memo telling agencies to update their purchasing policies to reflect a new commitment to telework.

That's all good except for one small problem: For many feds, the Obama administration's commitment to telework has not caught on with their bosses. For all the difference the law has made, it might as well have never happened.

Many readers told us their managers are afraid to let employees out of their sight. Those employees say that although the Obama administration has embraced telework in concept, its policies lack teeth, leaving managers little incentive to comply. Recalcitrant managers will simply write and rewrite the policies as ordered without making any substantive effort to implement them, readers said.

On the other hand, some managers say they are doing everything possible to make telework a reality for employees, but the employees want nothing to do with it. They argue that it blurs the boundaries between work and home too much and lets job demands encroach on what should be private, personal time.

The bottom line is that telework remains more popular in theory than in practice, and although change might come, it will come slowly.

Here is a sampling of readers' comments, which have been edited for length, clarity and style.

Resistance is futile…or effective?

Managerial resistance is still the most common reason our readers offer for why relatively few feds are teleworking compared to the number theoretically able to do so. One might think the resistance would be for naught in light of the new law, but it appears to still be an effective brake on agency progress.

A reader who, coincidentally, is an Office of Personnel Management employee said, “We were told a year ago that the GS-14 over our section didn't really like [telework], so he never wanted to work on standards for us to be allowed to telework. Now that it is part of his performance rating, he is half-heartedly having this worked on.”

The employee wrote that only four or five people in the group would be eligible to telework. “We are all experienced in our jobs and meet the minimum requirements. It is quite simple to manage when you are only talking [about] a handful of personnel. Give me a break. Quit allowing these GS-15s with their own personal feelings/agenda to keep dragging their feet.”

Indeed, managers appear to have no difficulty in ignoring telework policies if they choose. “If my department has established a telework policy, it has been kept a secret [within] the upper levels of management,” another reader said. “At the lower levels, we have not been told there is a policy, much less how to participate.”

There are some valid concerns about telework, including security and employee productivity. But some readers suspect that it is far too easy for managers to use those concerns as excuses to block the adoption of telework.

“My agency has consistently made teleworking more difficult until I no longer participate,” a reader wrote. “The commissioner of [the Social Security Administration] continually thumbs his nose at the president. As long as the president isn't serious and there are no consequences, agencies will continue to ignore him.”

“Our manager is a classic example of a maniacal control freak who refuses to promote or assist in telework requests because he [has to] be sure of what we are working on every day,” another reader wrote. The manager “fears he won’t be able to 'manage' our office even though he has zero experience in the line of work we do.”

How do managers get away with ignoring telework rules? In at least some agencies, it appears to be fairly simple: just fill out the paperwork documenting compliance whether or not there actually is compliance.

“In my agency, we are required to file the agreement so we can be counted as telework, but we in fact are not allowed to telework,” a reader wrote. “When I do the math, I could save about $400 a month teleworking, not to mention the hours of commute time I lose daily. In this decade of cutbacks, it is the worker who is the last one considered.”

However, it's possible that some managers aren't as afraid of losing control of their employees as they are of showing themselves to be unneeded. As workplace dynamics evolve, office roles must evolve, too, and some of them might become obsolete.

One reader mused, “You think maybe it's because of the threat of the elimination that telework would cause middle management, whose sole reason for existing is to constantly count heads and watch clocks to see if somebody came in five minutes late and write them up?”

Making it work

Nevertheless, some feds reported positive experiences with telework at their agencies. A reader in one such setting credited a federal employee union with successfully pushing for progress on telework. Recently, all managers and employees interested in telework were required to attend training, the employee wrote.

“We finally have a policy and are starting to implement telework across the workforce,” the employee wrote. “All telework agreements are to be formal and reviewed annually.… In order for telework to succeed, it requires support from the top, and we finally have that here.”

A reader from Fort Worth, Texas, also had a success story to share. The reader had just completed a teleconference call that replaced an event that in the past required people from all over the country to travel to one location.

“We just saved airline/hotel/per diem costs and became more efficient,” the reader wrote. “The other hours of the day are spent doing my local work. The process has not been totally perfected yet, but it will be. Supervisors will comply with agency requirements and agency policy for telework.”

Who pays?

After we published an article reporting that few federal employees have the technology necessary to telework in a robust way — such as laptop computers that meet agency security specifications, high-speed Internet access or smart phones dedicated to work — readers offered thoughts on who should bear the expense for the tools.

“The government should pay for telework capability,” one reader wrote. “It will pay off. Snowstorms and other emergencies will enable the shutdown of government buildings without the shutdown of workers.”

Another reader proposed a hybrid approach. “Laptops are a no-brainer, but government (i.e., taxpayers) should not be paying for employees’ home bandwidth. Individuals should be responsible for having their own high-speed connectivity — I mean, who doesn't already?”

There are other options. Agencies could issue older computers to employees for teleworking use, thereby extending the lives of the computers, some readers suggested. That practice is allowed, but few agencies do it, one reader told us.

In a similar vein, Rich in D.C. objected to a Forrester Research report that emphasized the need for teleworkers to have state-of-the-art mobile technology.

“Let's not use technology and gadget gaps as an excuse for not having more telework,” Rich wrote. “Most employees have acceptable PCs or laptops already and phone service adequate to check their e-mail or participate in conference calls.… I can plan to bring home the type of work (reports, memos, draft rules, etc.) that is ideal for productivity in my home office. Works like a charm! We don't need smart phones and the like for telework.”

In some cases, the government is already spending the money to buy equipment suitable for telework and then not using it for that purpose, readers told us. It's a shame to spend the money and not use the devices to their full potential, one reader said.

A contractor said contractor employees must also have the appropriate equipment to telework and often have to get it at their own expense.

“It would be nice to show some concern for the contractors you force to work from home, at night, on weekends,” the contractor wrote. “I have to use my own home computer, my own Internet connection after dinner, on weekends, when I am home sick, all at the whim of the feds.”

Voices of dissent

That contractor wasn’t the only reader we heard from who was less than enthusiastic about telework. Despite the apparent benefits of reduced commuting and the ability to balance work and home life, some employees prefer to report to an office. Most citied the intrusion into personal time as a reason.

“Telework is just another way for management to get more work out of underpaid low-level workers who have to respond to any and all management demands, even at night and on weekends,” one reader wrote.

And a reader who commented on an article about the Defense Information Systems Agency offering a telework option for employees affected by the agency’s move from northern Virginia to Fort Meade, Md., cautioned them about making use of it.

“I have to telework nights, weekends, holidays, whenever a fed gets a bug up their…,” the commenter wrote, leaving the location of the bug to the reader’s imagination. “And I have to use my own equipment and my own Internet connection.”

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