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The subject of telecommuting is nothing new to the Department of Defense; but with increases in technological capabilities, the threat of swine or bird flu looming somewhere over the horizon, the new anti-terrorism federal building requirements, and a tech savvy workforce; the pressure to talk about telecommuting is growing. So I offer my experience as a walk around the proverbial telecommuting elephant.

I've personally experienced the telework issue from many perspectives during my career and have had about 12 good years to read and think about it. I'll describe for you some of the issues I encountered as a non-eligible worker-bee, a supervisor, a mid-level manager, a senior level manager, and from where I am today.

As a reader of my blog, you already know that I wore a Navy uniform during my first few years with the Department of Defense. Active duty soldiers, sailors and airmen are taught from the very beginning the importance of being at your post - at the appointed time, awake, alert and without complaint. Falling asleep while your on watch or leaving your post is a very serious offense. During wartime, not being at your post has resulted in more than one courts marshal.

People's lives are literally depending on the watch being where he or she is supposed to be. In my case, I provided hands on medical support to sick and injured people. From a telework perspective, I was not a good candidate during those years.

It is very clear to me that telework under certain circumstances is not a good idea. I know many people - ex-military - who come to the telework discussion from having stood the watch themselves - many people with that kind of background approach the issue with a wary eye. I was one of them.

Others I might put in the "should-not-telework" category would be people who are hired specifically to greet people (secretaries, concierge, appointment clerks (unless by phone), etc). If those people weren't physically where they are supposed to be, the job wouldn't get done. Jobs that require handling classified materials on a regular basis might not be well suited for telework. I would also not want to see any of the contact professions work from home - doctors, medical support staff, airplane mechanics, Navy SEALS, surgeons, etc. Although in some cases I would love to see doctors make house calls again.

When I left the Navy in 1997, I went to work for a federal contractor. During those years, I spent a lot of time on the client site, worked long hours, and rose up the middle management ranks quickly. When I managed small groups of direct reports and had products or services to deliver, telework wasn't much of an issue. In those years, telework was used as a way to conserve leave and keep employees productive during the occasional sickness or acute injury. It was frankly a pretty hands-off affair since employees weren't gone too long or too often. It required some minor documentation and a return-to-work meeting with employees who were hopefully carrying some deliverable in the form of a report, a proposal, or something similar.

I continued to climb the ladder, and in a few short years, I found myself with 11 managerial direct reports - each of them had staffs and departments of their own and products and or services to produce. They were geographically spread out from Kansas to Puerto Rico. My focus shifted from producing anything or supervising production to pure management of people, moral, issues and outcomes. I no longer had the luxury of knowing all of my employees by name and face (except for my 11 task and project managers).

Insight was provided to me in the form of reports: budgets, burn rates, G&A, ODC's vs labor, etc. From that perspective, the economics of teleworking look pretty good. Since I didn't have office space to support for telework employees, overhead was lower. That meant that the company could introduce a lower multiple for labor hours, move excess money into reserves, use excess money for quality improvements, or apply excess to the bottom line. It also gave us flexibility with hiring. We had one employee who did nothing but proposals for us. I never saw him. He did all his work from home. The bottom line was that in this role, embracing telework made my company more competitive.

My next job was as the CIO for Navy Medical Logistics. I was dual hatted as the Information Systems Security Manager (ISSM). In these roles, I got to know the technical, security and policy side of telework. At first, it was scary. I had Information Assurance Vulnerability Alerts (IAVA) to contend with. This was a 100% visibility and a no-fail exercise. There were people assigned to make sure that my command was compliant and it was my butt on the line if a roaming laptop came back, plugged in and infected my network.

There were questions about who pays for the home computers and home phone lines, how do we protect government information in an environment where we don't have direct control, and more. Even something as simple as fixing a locked out or forgotten user password was stimulus for a major discussion. At that time, there was little precedent, virtually no policy, and no guru's out there who had set up the systems to guide us.

I had VPN capacity issues and property (mostly computers) tracking issues. I had, in my mind, a major control problem. The computers that people took home with them were no longer surrounded by the safety and protection of my envelope. At the command, I had firewalls, virus protection, remote monitoring, intrusion detection systems, and more. At home, these computers were left at the mercy of whatever user borrowed it. Judging from the volume and quality of my help desk tickets, that was a scary prospect.

Yet, somehow, we survived. We wrote new policy, created new ways to keep our networks safe, and adjusted our personal paradigms. We had to remind ourselves that productivity was the real objective - not security for security sake. Automation is a workforce enabler, and from the big picture perspective, telework gave us a more productive workforce. Specifically, we had a large number of contracting officers (KO's) and their support staffs who, when contract season rolled through (or as they might say: rolled over us), they could work from home and on weekends. This small enhancement in flexibility made a big difference to them and to our customers.

When I accepted the job as Chief for Defense Business Transformation for the Military Health System (MHS), I had a significant outcome to deliver. My staff and the extended support I needed from other departments were spread out as they were in an earlier time in my career. My small contracted team worked from a second building on the same campus, from a third building in another city, and from their homes. The Army Medical Transformation capability was in Texas, the Navy Medical Transformation capability was in DC and Bethesda, and the Air Force medical Transformation support were... well, I never really figured out where they were. They showed up for the meetings and called me on the phone.

In this role, the bottom line focus was on outcomes. I didn't much care where everyone was physically located. I was very concerned with our objectives, our obstacles, the strengths and weaknesses of my combined resources, communication abilities, and reach. I was hired to establish a new program - Defense Business Transformation for the Military Health System. I would often only see my staff members together, on average, once per week. But I always knew where we (the MHS) were in terms of outcomes, team strengths, and obstacles.

With a little help from telework and a number of remote working arrangements, a program was born where no program existed previously. It had well documented process, a strong virtual presence - and people literally around the world, in three different Services (Army Medicine, Navy Medicine, and Air Force Medical Services) had come together around the notion of good due diligence and better investment decisions.

Due in part to our need to reach out to and empower people around the world that we knew we would never physically meet, we did a lot of work in the virtual space. We embraced asynchronous communication and became comfortable with the notion that we don't need to see one another in order to communicate. Policy, process diagrams, Web sites, podcasts, CD's, brochures - all acted like breadcrumbs that we scattered in strategic places - deliberately leading those who stumbled across them to the same place and the same behavior patterns.

Our footprint was so large, that when it came time to divide up what I had built into smaller parts and distribute those parts into the organization (to "institutionalize" them), there were some lively arguments. Some departments who were inheriting pieces of my program wanted resources too. When they found out how few resources I actually had, they were in disbelief. They thought I had an army of people. The fact that my little platoon made themselves largely virtual and spread out had affected people's perception. We gave the illusion that we were many of us because of outcome was so profound. We leveraged ourselves through the application of assets that worked while we were home sleeping at night.

Today, I telework myself. Do do this effectively, I had to involve my family. They understand that when I'm in my home office, I'm not available. I work hard to separate the hours I work from the hours I spend with my family or doing other things. Do I leave occasionally and run to the post office or the dry cleaners, you bet I do. But I also keep track of the time I put in and ensure that my employer gets full value from the time they pay for.

My office has two computers, a fax machine, a separate phone line (though I use a government issues phone for most calls), large monitors, Web cams and a USB microphone (for DCO teleconferences), two printers, a big leather chair, and a book shelf of reference materials. It has become my "head space" where I can think about issues and create with minimal interruption, and write in support of many initiatives going on back in the group office space.

Telework is not for everyone. Some people don't like the idea of telework and /or don't have a suitable work site setup to do telework if they wanted to. Thank goodness for them! Most organizations do need some physical presence, and the strengths of working together in the same physical space should never be diminished.

This post is supplemented by two additional posts on the same subject: Teleworking - Some Additional Considerations and Teleworking Math.

Tags: telework

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