Why federal managers resist telework

Are federal managers, still resistant to telework according to a new study,  Luddites?

Research suggests they're not. Resistance to telework is born from several reasons, none of them having to do with a general distrust of technology.

A July 6 report to Congress from the Office of Personnel Management highlighted the increase of telework participation in federal agencies. Despite an overall spike – from 10 percent in 2009 to 21 percent in 2011 – in telework adoption, the findings revealed that managers remain on the fence about telework.

It's an old story, one that surfaces seemingly every time telework in the government is discussed. But why? What drives managers to resist an approach to work that seems so ideal in this age of connectivity?

“As the report shows, some challenges remain: Not all managers are comfortable directing employees who telework; agencies’ ability to track and report telework metrics vary; and a lack of prior data makes comparisons to past telework metrics difficult,” OPM Director John Berry wrote in the report introduction. 

But a lack of performance metrics is hardly the only reason telework isn’t as widely implemented. Managers and employees alike get little or no training in it, and managers worry about how they might discontinue it if it becomes necessary, said Patricia Niehaus, president of the Federal Managers Association. That latter concern may lead them to conclude that it's better not to start than to start and later decide to stop. 

“Training is necessary for any new program to work and telework is no different,” she said. “Both managers and employees need to be trained on how to handle assignments and accountability under telework.”

Training needs to start with change management and demonstrate the “whys” of telework, said Kate Lister, a consultant at Global Workplace Analytics, a research and advisory firm focusing on telework, workplace flexibility and alternative workplace strategies.

“They need to see what's in it for them,” she said. “If they don't, they're going to resist it. It's just human nature. Beyond that, the training needs to address a whole host of issues. You can't just tell people to change the way they work and expect them to excel.”

Managers who haven't been trained in telework don’t know what they can and can’t do with the program and fear making mistakes that could be hard to undo, Niehaus said.

“I've also heard from several of our members that they're reluctant to begin a program that they would have to negotiate with their unions to terminate if it didn't work for their organizations,” she said. “They feel it's easier to just not start a program than to start one and have to worry about not being able to stop it later on.”

The fundamental problem around telework is cultural, Lister said, particularly when it comes to trust. However, “this is not unique to government,” she stressed. “It's the biggest holdback worldwide in both the public and private sector.”

The nature of work has changed from a noun -- a place one goes -- to a verb, what one does. But the way most managers manage hasn't changed accordingly, she said. Studies show that people spend less time at their desks -- in meetings, on the road, working in coffee shops, at home, and so on, and with remote workers, “the only way you really know they're working is if you're measuring results, not butts in seats,” Lister said.

However, most managers haven’t been taught how to manage or set measurable goals and help their employees meet them, so they resort to micromanagement, she noted

“Until we get to a culture where people are measured by what they do, rather than where, when, or how they do it, managers are not going to be comfortable with telework,” Lister said.

For many managers, reluctance to allow telework is rooted in uncertainty about managing individual performance, said Justin Johnson, OPM’s deputy chief of staff.

“Telework requires a new mindset, and it changes the dynamics of the work and the workplace in ways that not everyone feels competent to manage,” he said. “All managers need to get more comfortable with managing by results rather than process and time in the office.”

Telework training for federal managers already exist in form of an online module provided by OPM on telework.gov. However, while it emphasizes the value of telework, manager reluctance can’t be overcome by online training, Johnson said.

“Ultimately, authorizing telework is a test of the relationship between a manager and their employees,” he added.

Although the cultural issues are universal, the government faces certain unique challenges. Some older federal employees see the push for telework as a just another fad, and “simply want to dig in their heels and ride out the next few years, or the next administration,” Lister explained.

“In many ways, the word ‘telework’ is tainted,” she said. “The point is mobility; it's how people are already working.”

Others have seen telework around for a while, producing less than stellar results. In a study conducted by Lister’s organization, one respondent simply said: “Telework is so 1990s. Been there. Tried that. It went nowhere. What’s going to make it different this time?”

Telework programs indeed changes how managers and employees work collaboratively, and that outside-the-box thinking feels threatening to some because it’s unfamiliar, said Josh Sawislak, senior fellow at the Telework Exchange. 

“We need to accept that change is not always easy for people, but it is critical to organizations and society to allow for growth and innovation,” he said.

Telework helps drive performance management methods that depend on work output and results rather than physical presence, he said. With knowledge workers, this needed change represents the evolving nature of work and supporting technology, he said, something previously seen with the adoption of email and video conferencing.

“This is how the workplace evolves,” he said. “It will take time, but we have all of the pieces and tools we need – technology and collaboration tools and training procedures. Now we just need to allow managers and employees to feel comfortable embracing this way of working, which will result in cost savings and increased productivity and resiliency. Change is good; it’s just not easy."


About the Author

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

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Reader comments

Fri, Sep 21, 2012

As a contractor, it would seem to make sense for both the government and the company to be on board with teleworking even more so than the private sector. However, I believe also comes down to the need by some inadequate managers to micro-manage because they may want to have that control and insider knowledge on every aspect of your work and home life. Those are the managers that they themselves need extra hand-holding mostly due to their own insecurities and lack of communication and organization skills. Managers like that seem to be more about control and less about management. I have an excellent work ethic, very self-disciplined, but under the thumb of too many of these "controllers" to feel comfortable just getting the job done! It seems like at times, especially on the government side, they want to throttle your productivity and channel it towards their own career interests.

Thu, Jul 19, 2012

As a manager of teleworkers, it's all about productivity. If I conduct a review and the work is getting done, I have no issue. I also telework; I have a dedicated office, no pets or children at home. It let's me work uninterupted all day. When I telework I generally start before my true TOD and sometime after. I know that's not such a good idea but when on a roll, go with it. "Old School" manager's have the "have to see them" to make sure folks are working. Let go of the old school manager mentality and trust your employees to do what they are suppose to but at the same time, review productivity and expectations. I take offense to those that think telework are all about lounging all day at home. Managers have a responsibility to check productivity and progress, if the manager does their job properly there shouldn't be any issues.

Fri, Jul 13, 2012 RayW

I like FEDUP's answer, make everyone have to work at home at least one day a week. Essentially a free day of leave with some work tossed in - and not too practical for many folks, and VERY expensive for the company.

As an example of what many folks are talking about, I have made several trips to another company that we have been under pressure to convert to teleconferencing. Every time we have had several ideas generated because one on the people in the meeting sees something that would have been off screen for most and bring it up, resulting in a problem headed off before it got expensive. So far we have been able to tell congress that we need to do this more than they need their junkets.

Personally, the best jobs for telework are the ones that do not require any people to people interaction, just grunt paper pushing, head down, ignore the world, or pure coding/engineering design (assuming you can afford the extra infrastructure to support that AND have people who never need to bounce ideas off of others or bother to help others). Yet at the same time many of those jobs are subject to espionage, both domestic and foreign and considering that the Chinese are known to walk through CAC authentication like it is not there, there may be an issue there. But then, most folks who are pushing telework do not care about what could happen, they just do not want to take the extra hour in the morning it takes to do the three S's (you ex-military folks know that one), drive in to work, walk from the back 40 to the office, and get settled in for the day (I used an hour because some folks have to brew coffee before they hit the road.)

Thu, Jul 12, 2012

Just to clarify - those I know who telework sign onto company equipment that holds the data and application software. These are not on our home computers. We have company laptops and/or docking stations, but I use my own equipment since it is a far more expensive and better system than work provides any of us. It's when I'm onsite at the company that I'm not as productive.

Thu, Jul 12, 2012

I telework one day a week. When teleworking, I get fewer interruptions from sales calls and co-workers. I have an office at home that is better setup for working than my office at the company site. No kids, no pets, no losing time because a co-worker has a problem and far fewer distractions (my office at home doesn't have a great view with lots going on outside) I also tend to forget it's "quiting time" when teleworking. My benefits consist of saving on gas, mileage wear and tear, no fast-food for lunch and more relaxed clothing. My added cost is the electricity and internet features I would not otherwise have. With gas so high, my added cost is little by comparison. With our economy practically in the potty, you'd think everyone would be concerned with saving cost and helping one another instead of what they perceive to be a display of their management skills. As for lawsuits because the worker's home isn't safe - oh, please!! I've got coworkers who were robbed at gun point outside the building, cars broken into and more reasons for suit than one teleworking has.

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