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.


  • IT Modernization
    shutterstock image By enzozo; photo ID: 319763930

    OMB provides key guidance for TMF proposals amid surge in submissions

    Deputy Federal CIO Maria Roat details what makes for a winning Technology Modernization Fund proposal as agencies continue to submit major IT projects for potential funding.

  • gears and money (zaozaa19/Shutterstock.com)

    Worries from a Democrat about the Biden administration and federal procurement

    Steve Kelman is concerned that the push for more spending with small disadvantaged businesses will detract from the goal of getting the best deal for agencies and taxpayers.

Stay Connected