Making telework happen: It's up to managers now

Management resistance to telework is rational and born of experience, but it need not be a permanent obstacle, writes Patricia Niehaus, president of the Federal Managers Association.

The bottom line is that telework is coming to an agency near you. By being ahead of the curve and embracing the concept now, managers will have a positive impact on the productivity and appeal of their agencies.

Patricia Niehaus is president of the Federal Managers Association, the largest and oldest association of managers and supervisors in the federal government.

The telework bandwagon is on a roll, with Congress and the Obama administration touting the flexible work tool as the next big innovation in government efficiency. Although the merits of telework are well documented, the task of implementing telework policies falls on federal managers, and they have real, valid concerns that deserve greater attention.

Recent studies have cited management resistance as one of the most significant impediments to expanded telework adoption. The hesitancy with which many managers approach telework is rational and born of experience, but it is not insurmountable. As an organization representing these very managers, the Federal Managers Association is committed to realizing the benefits of telework while finding solutions to managers’ legitimate concerns.

For many managers, apprehension centers on the fear that embracing telework entails a surrender of workforce control and a subsequent drop in productivity. Managers note that a lack of face-to-face collaboration with employees, coupled with the difficulty in effectively measuring output, contributes to their trepidation. Additionally, stories regarding managers’ struggles to contact unresponsive employees engaged in telework exacerbate reservations.

Key to reversing managers’ resistance is understanding what telework is and what it is not.

First and foremost, telework is a cost-effective means to bolster agencies’ delivery of services to the public. Already, some agencies have demonstrated that incorporating telework on a large scale can improve continuity-of-operations plans, sustaining the delivery of government services in the event of a natural disaster or terrorist attack, while simultaneously improving everyday output.

Additionally, as the demand among employees for a more secure work/life balance grows, telework can serve as a critical recruitment and retention resource, one the private sector has offered for years and with which the federal government is forced to compete. Telework is not a benefit reserved only for privileged employees and should not be viewed as such.

Employing telework on a governmentwide scale constitutes a significant culture shift in the federal workforce, one that requires an increased investment in training to teach managers how to maintain employee engagement, monitor performance and promote cooperation when face-to-face communication is restricted.

Establishing trust between managers and employees is critical, and that trust can only be established if managers understand how to clearly lay out goals and objectives and communicate effectively with employees outside the office. Managers must hold all of their employees accountable for achieving performance results, but a telework environment requires supervisors to possess expanded competencies to manage operations remotely.

It is also crucial that agency leaders avoid a one-size-fits-all approach to telework and instead pursue creation of pilot programs to test the applicability of telework in their respective departments. Not all positions in the federal government are amenable to telework, as certain jobs require the employee’s physical presence in the office.

In addition, underperforming employees, or those who require more direct supervision, should not be allowed to work remotely without first improving their performance. Pilot programs enable managers and employees to engage in a trial run without committing to a permanent arrangement and better prepare agencies to establish clear guidelines and goals to facilitate formal implementation.

It is no surprise that interest in telework is on the rise. This flexible work tool undoubtedly provides many benefits — not only to those participating but also to the agency and the nation. However, the concerns and recommendations of managers and supervisors charged with executing programs on the ground must be taken into account to achieve success.

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