We asked federal managers to share their concerns about telework and then asked management experts to address those concerns. The bottom line? It all comes down to performance management.
Federal managers who are holding out against what they see as the travesty of telework probably do not want to hear what the management experts have to say.
Never mind the possible benefits of telework, which have been repeated ad nauseam by experts, federal employees, White House officials and even lawmakers.
Agencies that allow employees to work remotely several days a week might have an easier time attracting and retaining talent. They might also be better prepared to continue operating in the event of a disaster. And everyone would be happy to see less traffic on the roads around Washington and other major metropolitan areas with a strong federal presence.
But those arguments don’t convince managers who worry about the detrimental effects of telework — most notably a loss of productivity and, in some cases, an outright waste of tax dollars by unsupervised and unmotivated employees.
Here’s the catch, the part that managers won’t want to hear: Telework does not create management problems, the experts say. It simply makes existing problems more apparent.
It all comes down to performance management, the idea of managing employees based on clear and measurable goals rather than time and attendance. Where performance management is lacking, which apparently is the case in many pockets of the federal government, telework is a scary prospect.
Performance management is essential to telework. In lieu of measurable output and deliverables, “managers feel they are losing control if they are not able to see their employees working,” said Jennifer Carignan, associate manager of research at the Partnership for Public Service, which recently published a study on the state of flexible work arrangements at federal agencies.
Earlier this summer, we asked managers to share their concerns about telework at the “FCW Insider” blog. We received dozens of comments, many of which highlighted specific issues that make telework impractical at their organizations.
But experts who reviewed those comments repeatedly linked the issues to underlying management problems. To one degree or another, the solution always involves more hands-on management — including better planning, communications and, above all, an emphasis on performance.
The lack of performance management at some agencies “is a matter of management abdication of responsibility,” said Abe Zwany, senior vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton, who worked with the Partnership for Public Service on the workforce study. “That is not specific to telework.”
Here are the reasons managers object to telework and how management experts respond to their arguments.
NEXT: Technology disconnects
1. Technology disconnects
Point: Home offices often do not measure up to the demands of the job.
An employee who stays home occasionally to wrap up a report might need nothing more than a PC with basic office software and Internet connectivity, but that’s not enough for those who telework on a regular basis, managers say.
They need government-provided portable devices, security and management software, and other tools to help them work seamlessly with their supervisors and colleagues. Some agencies might support telework in principle but not in their budgets.
And security is tricky. Virtual private networks might make it possible for employees to link in from anywhere, but security often takes a big bite out of network performance, as one Agriculture Department employee discovered.
“Security on the network is so heavy that it takes a long period of time to get the work done and not cause problems with the applications we work with,” the reader commented.
Another concern is the physical security of home offices, especially given past incidents in which laptop computers that contain sensitive data were stolen from employees’ homes.
“So it’s not as simple as saying, ‘You can work at home today,’ ” pointed out a reader named John. “The agency must evaluate risk versus the cost.”
Counterpoint: How much technology does a home office really need?
Unfortunately, the technology problems cannot be brushed away by would-be teleworkers. If an agency lacks the infrastructure to provide employees with secure, reliable access to their work files from home, the prospects for telework are limited.
Less than a year after the blizzard that paralyzed the Washington, D.C., area for a week, federal officials are slowly coming around to the idea that they need that infrastructure in place. But even the best intentions cannot shorten the budget and acquisition processes needed to upgrade existing technology.
That’s a challenge even for managers who support telework.
“You have to do this very simple analysis: Can the tasks and responsibilities be done in someplace other than the primary workplace?” said Bruce Tulgan, management consultant and founder of RainmakerThinking. “Sometimes, the answer is no.”
But think carefully before you answer that question. In most cases, employees work from home just a day or two a week. Perhaps on those days they do not need access to all their files or systems. Nor should agencies assume that employees need a fully outfitted home office.
“What technology is necessary to support the work being done?” asked Cindy Auten, general manager of the Telework Exchange, a public/private partnership that promotes telework. “Do they really need a printer/fax/scanner device?” Employees often load up on fancy equipment but rarely use it, except as footstools, she added.
But the one area in which agencies cannot afford to cut corners is security. “This is where telework can get a bad name,” Auten said. “It absolutely has to be top of line.”
NEXT: Disconnected employees
2. Disconnected employees
Point: Remote workers are difficult to reach and can’t keep up with changing priorities.
Ideally, employees who work at home should not be “out of sight, out of mind,” but that is often how it works, according to both managers and employees.
Sure, co-workers can use e-mail, instant messaging and chat rooms to keep in touch throughout the day. But conversations of consequence inevitably spring up in the hallway, the kitchen or even the parking garage that can’t be replicated online.
That is a problem especially in the event of an unanticipated, quick-turnaround assignment, when people are scrambling to respond. Once they get patched in, teleworkers might spend a long time playing catch-up.
To make matters worse, some managers have had bad experiences with employees who are online but out of touch.
“I have attempted to reach federal employees at [the Office of Personnel Management] who supposedly ‘work from home,’ and guess what? On their ‘work-from-home days,’ they do not respond at all,” one reader commented.
Telework also puts an added burden on people who work in the office, especially supervisors who often have to fill in for remote employees at impromptu face-to-face meetings with outside clients or political appointees.
“Try patching in teleworking employees to participate — without sufficient support staff to do this — and you [understand] one of the many reasons why no one wants to be in middle management anymore,” another reader said.
Counterpoint: Clear rules of engagement are a simple and effective fix.
The danger of “out of sight, out of mind” is overstated and avoidable, management experts say.
Technically, webcams, collaboration software and other affordable gadgets make it fairly easy for remote employees to keep in touch. As noted earlier, the technical infrastructure is a must.
But that’s not enough. The question of availability is largely about culture, not technology. Managers and employees need to have a common understanding of the rules of engagement.
For instance, what is the most appropriate way to reach teleworkers: by telephone, e-mail or other tools? When is videoconferencing appropriate to use? What is the expected response time if teleworkers are not immediately available?
“We have a whole superstructure of norms and expectations of what is and is not acceptable behavior in the workplace,” Zwany said. “We simply need to apply it to" the telework environment.
It can be tricky, especially because of prevailing cultural norms. For example, many managers hesitate to call employees at home, even though they are teleworking, Zwany said.
The solution is for agency leaders to develop clear guidelines and expectations for teleworkers and their managers, he said.
If an agency successfully fosters a telework-friendly culture, employees do not need to worry about losing touch with their bosses or co-workers.
“That is a legitimate fear only if you are not doing anything to add value to the organization,” said Gina Vega, professor of management at Salem State University.
She also laughed at the notion that teleworkers miss important impromptu conversations back at the office. “It’s not a hotbed of creative conversation that goes on at most water coolers,” she said.
NEXT: Management matters
3. Management matters
Point: Lack of face-to-face contact hinders clear communication.
“It’s often the things that are left unsaid that represent the most critical part of a message.”
In theory, a manager should be able to work with employees equally well whether they are in the office, on the road or at home. As far as managing performance goes — that is, defining goals and measuring outcomes — that might be true. But that is only half the story, some managers say.
Between formal performance reviews, managers should be checking in with employees constantly, making sure they know their priorities and how to achieve them. How much of that contact is lost when an employee is out of the office on a regular basis?
“Telephones and e-mail are good for communicating facts, but nuances are lost,” one manager said. “If I can’t see someone’s face and body language, and they can’t see mine, we are missing out on 60 to 80 percent of the communication channel.”
“I may not like it,” the reader added, “but it’s often the things that are left unsaid or unwritten that represent the most critical part of a message.”
A manager also needs to think about how his or her team is perceived by the powers that be, especially when it comes to dealing with a crisis. That's unfair but true, one reader said.
“If the rest of the federal government is anything like the Defense Department, they reward the folks who come up with heroic solutions to crises, but they don’t reward the team who does their job and prevents crises from ever happening,” the reader wrote. “The former can’t telecommute because their processes aren’t well defined; the latter can telecommute but would then go from low visibility to complete invisibility. What manager can afford to run an invisible team?”
Counterpoint: Management by intangibles is bad management.
Such concerns are a red herring at best and at worst a sign of weak management, experts say.
True, nonverbal cues are lost when using the phone or e-mail — emoticons excepted. But a manager shouldn’t be relying on nonverbal communication in any situation, experts say.
“I don’t understand what facial images your boss will be throwing your way,” said Jon Desenberg, senior policy director at the Performance Institute. “This is not a personal relationship; this is work.”
In part, it’s simply a matter of adapting the message to the medium. “It certainly is the case that there are intangibles in communications,” Tulgan said. “But that just means you have to be much better at using the phone and e-mail.”
However, it’s a moot point if the management basics are missing. All employees, no matter where they work, need measurable and meaningful performance goals. Those measures provide a sound basis for an effective, ongoing dialogue about work that does not use nonverbal cues as a crutch.
“If you don’t have structure in your interactions, then you are going to put more weight on the intangibles,” Tulgan said.
It’s also worth noting that the conventional wisdom about the importance of face-to-face communications is a bit dated. E-mail, and even instant messaging, has already become the norm for a lot of daily exchanges. In fact, if someone were to insist on speaking face to face on every matter, it might be seen as rude.
“You don’t walk over and interrupt someone physically if they are working,” Vega said. “You send them an e-mail.”
NEXT: Problem employees
4. The problem of problem employees
Point: Some employees are not suited to telework, but it’s an all-or-none proposition.
“[This is] a new breed of tech-savvy people who spend too much time at work updating their personal Web sites.”
When it comes to the telework debate, no issue is as divisive as the question of trust. Readers theorized that most managers who dislike telework do not trust their employees to work without someone looking over their shoulders. Managers say that is only partially true.
Managers would be willing to trust some of their staff to telework but not others. They get the willies just thinking about certain employees being allowed to work without direct supervision.
“We’ve seen countless comments by managers who observe this new breed of ‘tech-savvy’ people who spend too much time at work updating their personal Web sites or chatting with friends outside the office,” wrote Michael D. Long. “Taking them off-site will certainly lead to abuses that will at some point generate undesirable media attention and public reactions.”
Some people argue that managers can deal with the bad apples, whether they are working in the office or at home, by developing a performance management system that is based on meaningful and measurable metrics.
But it’s no secret that the process for dealing with underperforming feds leaves something to be desired and that many managers would rather avoid it. As they see it, their best available option is to keep those employees on a short leash.
Unfortunately, in some cases, everyone ends up on a short leash because the manager feels that he or she does not have the authority to set telework policy on a case-by-case basis.
Some employees “do not have the desire to excel,” Scott Glass wrote. “If I provide telecommunicating privileges to the one who does, then I have to do the same for that employee who is not as dedicated. We are forced to be ‘fair’ and treat all employees the same.”
Counterpoint: The privilege of telework gives underperformers something to work for.
A one-size-fits-all telework policy is not just a mistake, it’s a missed opportunity, experts say.
Managers are right: Some employees are better-suited for telework than others. However, the solution is not to kill telework altogether but to use it as leverage with underperformers.
Workforce surveys consistently find that flexibility in work hours and location are the two most valued nonmonetary rewards that an organization can offer, Tulgan said. In the federal government, where financial rewards are tough to come by, telework could be a great performance incentive.
“The manager has a very powerful discretionary reward that really matters to people,” he said. “I think [he] should use it.”
But it’s not that simple, of course. To make the privilege of telework an effective carrot, managers need clear and enforceable eligibility criteria.
“Each organization needs to make it clear in the policy, ‘If you want to be a teleworker, here’s what you have to do to get there,’ ” Carignan said.
Unfortunately, some managers blanch at the idea of linking telework to performance because it forces them to have conversations they would rather avoid. But if they do that, everyone will be better off.
“You are a manager, and all you need to do is quickly and simply document why someone is allowed to [telework] and someone is not,” Desenberg said.