Workplace flexibility could expand dramatically soon

Could a management philosophy that shuns traditional ways of thinking about work soon be a reality for the federal workforce?

The federal government might soon adopt a radical private-sector initiative that gives employees the ultimate freedom in how they do their jobs. But is the public sector ready?

In recent years, the federal government has moved in fits and starts toward a more flexible workplace, with the Office of Personnel Management spearheading many of those efforts. Last year, OPM officials decided to test an industry effort that gives new meaning to workplace flexibility. As the name implies, the Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE) focuses purely on results and does not require mandatory meetings or schedules. In short: Employees are free to do their work whenever they want, as long as they get it done.

Feel like doing your grocery shopping at 3 p.m. on a Tuesday? ROWE says you can. Thinking of going fishing Friday morning? That’s OK, too. How about jet-setting to the Caribbean for two weeks? Still OK — as long as you get your work done.

In addition to supporting a better work/life balance, advocates say ROWE reduces stress and wasteful processes while increasing morale and productivity. It also challenges the current culture of “presenteeism” in which employees are physically present but not mentally engaged.

“It’s great to see such innovation in the federal government,” said Cindy Auten, general manager at the Telework Exchange. OPM is “trying something that’s worked in the private sector. [ROWE] is the ultimate work flexibility model. It focuses on the results and really draws on that new way of thinking about focusing on work output.”

But not everyone is singing ROWE’s praises. Some federal managers question whether employees will actually work in an environment that relies on personal responsibility and accountability. Others want to see their employees in the office from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., no exceptions.

“Many organizations are rightfully worried about how they'll manage performance in this environment," said Adam Cole, director of the government practice at the Corporate Executive Board. “And a lot of that anxiety stems from the perception that performance management systems as they exist right now — without a significant portion of the workforce teleworking — are already somewhat broken.”

John Palguta, vice president of the Partnership for Public Service, said he is a big fan of ROWE but acknowledges that many government jobs don’t allow for that type of flexibility, including those of air traffic controllers, border patrol agents and transportation security personnel.

Employees who are already working in results-oriented environments will see a gradual change as more people are held accountable for getting their jobs done and "not for showing up at a particular place at a particular time and spending X number of hours behind the desk or wherever," Palguta said

“We’re not going to let prison guards work at home much,” he added. But areas that are amenable to a ROWE approach will see slow implementation as more people realize the benefits and see the results.

But the question remains: Is the public sector ready for ROWE?

More agencies are embracing flexibility, even those that haven’t traditionally been telework-friendly. The Defense Information Systems Agency, for example, has allowed its unclassified staff to work remotely for years, Auten said. The classified folks weren’t afforded the same flexibility, she added, until DISA built its classified telework center nearby Fort Meade, Md., so its classified employees can telework as well.

"It's very smart what they did, and that really helped encourage telework for a group that you may have thought was ineligible for telework," she said. "Needless to say, if DISA can find out a way to encourage telework for their employees, then anybody can do this."

Read more of Federal IT's next act or return to the 2011 Federal List.

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