Sweat pants and metrics

I'm wearing my grungy sweat pants and torn Oakland Raiders T-shirt as I write this column in my home office on Bainbridge Island, Wash., in the Puget Sound. My editor in Falls Church, Va., rarely sees me, and I suspect would be somewhat appalled at my work attire. Fortunately, he values results over appearance and office visibility.

The rapid expansion of teleworking in the government workplace means that more civil servants are also spending their time at home. Like me, they sit in front of a monitor and use e-mail and wikis to communicate from a distance. Unlike me, they may not have such a tangible work product to demonstrate their time spent and prove their value to the organization.

So how do their managers see what these remote staff members are doing? How do they identify and reward the hard workers and get the slackers to either move up or move out? At a time when many managers hail from the aging baby-boomer generation but many workers are gadget-savvy Gen Ys and Millennials, how do the two connect in the cyber office?

One of my clients, a senior federal agency information technology manager, worries that she might be overlooking industrious staff members who quietly toil behind the scenes in favor of those who are more able and/or adept at getting face time. Having more than half her staff spread through three different states is challenging her ability to accurately evaluate personnel performance.

For many years, she could use the venerable "management by walking around” approach. That’s possible only when all of the employees work in the same office. Now she’s forced to put more emphasis on measured contribution than on physical observation.

She is establishing a few prioritized measures of success for each organizational unit and employee, so she can then regularly measure and communicate the results. Indeed, many large commercial outfits are using workforce performance management software applications to monitor these individual and organizational objectives. They are even having serious business planning and status meetings via collaborative Web sites and fourth-dimensional worlds such as Second Life.

Veteran government managers need to embrace these innovative technologies or face alienating an ever-increasing number of Web-savvy workers. This means a cultural transition from face-to-face encounters at the water cooler to webcams, blogs and groupware.

What’s more, midlevel and frontline agency managers don't need to wait for official direction from above to make some of these changes right away. While always considering security and privacy restrictions, they can use the positions and authority they do have to explore ways to integrate some of these solutions. Who knows? It could be a first step toward creating the organization they hope to inherit in the next 10 years.

As more telework employees and their managers are learning, office familiarity is not an acceptable substitute for real performance. Hopefully, our next generation of government leaders will find the patience to help us gray-haired — or in my case, no-haired — managers adapt to new ways.

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