Can Telework Work for the Federal Government?

by on October 1, 2010 · 3 comments

The House and Senate have now both passed bills aimed at encouraging telework in the federal government. As anyone who has had to commute to work in the Washington DC area knows, the national capital area could probably use a good dose of telework to relieve traffic congestion.

According to Joe Davidson’s column in the Washington Post, “The inability or unwillingness of supervisors to manage staff members they can’t see has long been cited as a major reason” more federal employees don’t telework. This fits with what I’ve heard from some current or former federal managers.  “I have enough trouble getting work out of people when they’re in the office,” one remarked.

The legislation offers some simple solutions: Tell federal agencies they have to allow all employees to work remotely unless there’s some reason a position isn’t conductive to telework. And accompany that with training so that managers will be better equipped to manage employees who aren’t in the office.

I’m a big fan of telework. But one of the keys to making it work is holding employees accountable for results instead of inputs like time on task or time hanging around the office.  It’s possible to do this even when the desired results are hard to measure.  Universities, for example, evaluate professors based on the quality of their teaching and research, not the number of hours they spend preparing for class or writing. This system is hardly perfect, and some places do this better than others. But on balance, it works much better than telling professors they’ve fulfilled their obligation by showing up at the office 40 hours a week.

So the key question in making telework work in the federal government is, “How well do agencies hold individual employees accountable for results?”  Here, the federal government has a few handicaps to overcome. It’s hard to fire people for poor performance.  Pay is set by the federal pay scale, which does not necessarily create a direct link between pay and the value of the employee’s accomplishments to taxpayers. And agencies do not always create a clear understanding of how the individual employee’s contribution affects the results the agency is supposed to produce.

Granted, the federal government is probably better at dealing with some of these challenges now than it was 20 years ago, especially for the senior executive service. But most federal jobs are still a long way away from at-will employment with clear performance measures tied to the organization’s goals. This is a change that requires not just “more training” or “cultural transformation,” but also a redefinition of the terms of federal employment.

Given those circumstances, I think federal managers are justified in their concern that giving most employees the automatic right to telework could reduce productivity.  I can think of two ways to make telework work in the current federal employment environment:

1. Make people earn it. Employees who show they can get things done without a lot of supervision in the office are the most obvious candidates to be effective working remotely.

2. Mandate a trial period and evaluation. If you think it’s fair to guarantee the opportunity to telework to most employees, mandate only that it must be offered on a trial basis. Continuation depends on performance.

These are, of course, second-best solutions.  And there may be others.

  • http://openid-provider.appspot.com/quanticle quanticle

    Even with the advantages of at-will employment, private employers are also having a difficult time making telework effective. I think the main issue is that the infrastructure needed for telework is much different than the infrastructure needed for being at the office, so organizations are having a hard time adapting their fixed assets to the new role.

    For example, take communication. If everyone is at the office, I can just go over to the person's desk when I have a question. If I'm working from home, that turns into an instant message or an e-mail. The problem is, instant message and e-mail aren't as reliable or as secure. Organizations have a lot of experience in finding secure buildings and ensuring that buildings are reliable. They have significantly less experience in ensuring that telework tools like instant message and e-mail servers are as reliable as the buildings they sit in.

  • jerryellig

    It probably depends on the nature of the work and the nature of the organization. I routinely e-mail people sitting in offices in the same hallway I'm in, because asynchronous e-mail communication is more reliable than walking to someone's office and finding out that he or she isn't there, is on the phone, is meeting with someone else, etc. In that kind of context, transitioning to telework isn't a big deal, because we're already communicating electronically most of the time anyway. And if (as I learned in the government) it's a communication that really shouldn't be in an e-mail, a phone call still works pretty well.

    I refuse to use instant messaging, so I guess it's not an essential technology for telework — at least not for me.

  • http://twitter.com/ChristinaatHP Christina B Morrison

    Good post Jerry, I think your suggestions could definitely work and might help make managers more comfortable with adopting teleworking policies. However, agencies can lose sight of the ways in which teleworking can improve employee productivity in many cases, such as in bad weather when getting into the office is difficult or impossible. As they say at FedsTelework.com, work is what you do, not where you go, and as long as employees continue to be evaluated on the quality of the work they accomplish and not the location their work comes from, then teleworking will provide a big boost for government agencies.

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