An expert provides some guidance for managers who are worried about allowing employees to telework.
As Telework Week kicks off on Feb. 14 and with President Obama and the Office of Personnel Management’s focus on the practice, it’s clear that momentum is building among federal workers for increased telework opportunities.
Telework’s impact on an organization’s overall efficiency, productivity and sustainability have been widely noted, as have its effect on employee morale, recruitment and retention. Any discussion of federal telework also must take into account disaster and continuity of operations planning. Indeed, in the wake of a catastrophe, the inability of government employees to telework would seriously hamper the federal government’s ability to meet essential public needs.
The recent DC-area snowstorms -- last February’s one-two punch of “snowmageddon” and “snoverkill” and this year’s commuter nightmare -- dramatically demonstrated the need for work flexibility when it comes to inclement weather.
Late last year, Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry announced an unscheduled telework policy allowing employees to telework when the government remains open the weather is still bad. During the recent snowstorm this year, those workers who were approved and equipped for telework were permitted to work from home before the storm hit, saving those workers significant commuting times that were many hours longer than normal for those who stayed in the office longer. This year, like most recent winters, federal workers received a very real and pressing reminder of the need for telework.
By and large, federal workers don’t need to be convinced of telework’s many benefits. They understand them. But the people with authority to implement a telework policy are the same people who have proven to be federal telework’s biggest obstacle-- their bosses.
A 2009 OPM survey revealed that about half of federal agencies cited management resistance as a barrier to the use of telework. A recent Booz Allen Hamilton and Partnership for Public Service study found that federal managers were the largest single factor among barriers to telework adoption. At the same time, the study also found that the number of federal teleworkers dropped from nearly 141,000 in 2004 to around 95,000 in 2007, rising only slightly the next year.
So, what’s holding federal managers back from endorsing and allowing telework? Four broad factors cause the bulk of their resistance, technology and security issues; fear of disengaged employees; complexity of interaction; and trust. Any serious attempt to encourage telework must include measures aimed directly at easing these concerns.
Technology and security
Apprehension with technology and data security are often one of the first concerns managers have about telework, but also one of the easiest to mitigate. With the proliferation of mobile technology such as laptops, BlackBerrys, administrator options to add more secure agency email to personal smart phones and mature technologies like VPN access, the actual technology options to work remotely are no longer a barrier. In fact, it can be argued that technology advances are the single biggest driver of broader telework acceptance.
Along with the actual technology implementations, managers can create a straightforward set of guidelines detailing what type of technology is necessary for employees to work remotely, from the more obvious such as broadband access, to IT-department installed virus protection and VPN access. Much of the technology will likely already be a part of workers’ office lives, but clear communication will help to ensure compliance and ease security fears.
Complexity of interaction
Sure, mobile technology has become more powerful, but can workers use it effectively? Federal managers’ comfort level using technology or their perception of how comfortable their workers are at using mobile technology is another barrier to telework adoption.
However, this is largely a generational issue, likely to significantly lessen and altogether disappear as today’s young workers move up the corporate ladder and older workers retire. “Generation Y” grew up with technology like cell phones, mobile texts, email, instant messaging, and webcams and quickly embraced social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.
For this generation, being face-to-face in the office with their colleagues is almost irrelevant. That’s not to say there’s no value in face-to-face interactions, especially the richer non-verbal communication that it affords. Even here, however, technology like video-conferencing is helping to alleviate these concerns. For less comfortable workers, managers can initiate training seminars on the use of necessary technology.
Fear of disengaged employees
Another, often-cited federal management concern is the fear that remote employees will become disengaged from fellow colleagues and team members. This is a legitimate concern, as it’s possible that without the serendipitous, water cooler-type interactions that physical shared offices provide, employees may become isolated or disengaged. However, there are some highly effective ways to guard against this.
Regional telework centers allow employees to interact with other federal workers even when not working in the primary office. In addition, work-based social networks allow for more personal digital interactions in a format workers are increasingly comfortable with. One of the best cures for isolated, disengaged employees may be the simplest: have teleworkers come into the office once in a while.
Out of all the concerns federal managers have with telework, trust is the number one most-cited reason for their hesitancy. Many federal managers simply do not trust that workers will use their time productively outside of a traditional office. This is actually less of an employee issue and more of a management issue.
The same good management practices apply when managing a telework environment as a traditional work environment. Managers can start by setting reasonable and realistic performance goals for employees, with an emphasis on producing an actual work product.
This way, the focus shifts to producing work and not just showing up to fill the clock. A remote employee that slacks off during the day will soon learn that to meet their performance goals, they’ll have to work all night or on weekends, which quickly reinforces the need to stay on task. It also lets those with different internal schedules, find the most productive and effective working schedule tailored to their needs. There’s nothing wrong with allowing a night owl to do their best work late at night, or an early riser to log on and work at 5:00am. Far from a negative, this flexibility helps employees stay engaged and highly productive.
Managers should also ask for interim progress reports from employees just like they would otherwise. At the same time, managers need to be comfortable calling workers at provided home and mobile phone numbers during business hours just like they would call a worker at their desk in the office.
Trust issues along with concerns on technology, security, and complexity of interaction, can be overcome by good management and leadership practices. This is a theme seen time and again. As managers apply fundamental and sound management techniques to telework policies, over time colleagues and managers work together in new ways to earn trust in the system.
Jeff Pon is a principal at Booz Allen Hamilton, leading the firm’s human capital and learning efforts across the federal civilian market.