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Accountability: The Key To Federal Telework

"What is it going to take for government to slither out of the primordial goo and realize that their workplaces and work practices are teetering on the edge of extinction?"

Kate Lister, the President of Global Workplace Analytics, reports to the Federal Times earlier this month the results of a survey conducted with over 100 Federal telework leaders.  Here is a link to the article:

http://www.federaltimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2014302050011

Telework, mobile work, etc. has been a passion of mine ever since Kate published a 2011 report stating that adopting a 2 day per week telework policy for all eligible State of CA employees (she was being very conservative on the eligibility criteria) could result in hundreds of millions of dollars in savings.  I remember thinking at the time, "This is a no-brainer.  I have a computer and internet access at home.  Why do I need to drive across town just to use the same tool?" After all, the State of California was in a severe budget crisis and every dollar could have been put toward something more productive (human services, Medicaid, education, road repair, etc).  

Boy, was I in for a shock.  

I wrote a report for my department using Kate's assumptions, showing that we could reduce our budget savings (in CA that is a euphemism for cuts) in half if we reduced our real estate footprint significantly and adopted a "21st Century Workforce Model."  Not only was it shot down, I was reminded of all of the horror stories of employees that "abused" telework in the past.  

Then, I took my campaign to the road.  I started spreading the news to some of my contacts in the department and got a mediocre response.  I even shared my research with the Directorate of my department, only to receive the common objections (and even a few personal stabs by my colleagues).  After the meeting, my manager at the time snapped at me and questions my ethics, stating that my desire to increase adoption of telework was just an excuse for me to stay at home and play in my garden all day.  Ouch.  

Finally, I switched departments to a place that was not only pro 21st century, but was looking for ways to increase their adoption of telework department wide so they could reduce their budget cuts.  I remember thinking at the time, "Yes!  Finally someone is starting to understand..." Of course, another roadblock hit.  This time the rumor was that someone in the Governor's office shot it down.  

What the heck is going on?  

We continue to live in a world where people believe in the presenteeism facade.  You may have heard something like, "If I see the person working, then they must be working."  Instead of measuring the work product, deliverables, and outcomes, we focus on the amount of effort an individual exerts.  Inside an organization, these people are regarded as heroes since they are often available and ready to save the day when the next crisis occurs (even though their management style may be creating a cycle of crises in the first place).  From the public standpoint, we only question the contribution of the public worker when a news camera catches them at a bar when they are supposed to be "reporting to the office."  

In my personal opinion, I think we have to change the definition of what we consider "accountability" for work.  In today's world, we measure accountability by the amount of effort that an employee exerts in a time period.  Middle managers, the public, and sometimes even Governors, are obsessed with the idea that employees need to "put in their time."  However, there is no guarantee that the effort that an employee exerts will lead to achieving a department's mission.  Can we, as public employees, change our "accountability" metric toward contribution to our department's goals and outcomes?  To me, the answer is not only a resounding "yes," but also that it is our job as 21st century bureaucrats to make sure that we do.    

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Tags: leadership, management, performance, telework

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Comment by Ryan Arba on February 21, 2014 at 9:18am

Dale, John, Samantha, David, and Adrian: Thank you for your comments!  

Comment by Dale M. Posthumus on February 20, 2014 at 5:30pm

There are two important aspects to the success of telework arrangement, where it is possible, in my opinion: 1) clear description of the results, including milestones and deadlines, and 2) leveraging new technologies (Avaya has an interesing collaboration tool that uses a virtually office where everybody has an avatar and the virtual environment looks like an office).

There is also the issue of people seeing telework as a "perk". You get to work from home (which saves you a lot of money) because your type of job/work is condusive to telework, but I can't because mine is not. I don't know if it is still true today, but when I worked at USDA, you were not allowed to keep flying miles on govt travel, nor were allowed to stay someplace at own expense (no additional cost to the govt) because it was seen as an advantage not available to employees who did not travel. This must be overcome, either by change in attitudes, alternative "perks", or both.

 

Comment by John L. Waid on February 20, 2014 at 2:16pm

Ryan ran into the culture of fear that is so pervasive in modern government.  throughout history, bureaucracies have focussed on control of their personnel, often to the detriment of the mission.  Any mistake that gets someone higher up the food chain in dutch rolls downhhill with greater and greater intensity.  It is easier to supervise than to manage.   Supervision requires just watching the worker: "Ryan was in his seat right at 7:30, took his break right at 9:45 and was back in his seat right at 10:00, and so on", concluding with "I don't know why the work isn't gettign done; you can't blame me!"  Teleworking is the ultimate loss of physical control and the ultimate placing of trust (shudder!) in the teleworker.  Managing implies using judgment and discretion. "Ryan gets his work done early and well and knows a bit about computers to boot.  He is a go-getter and will do what he says he will do.  We are in a crunch for space, let's let him stay at home for a couple or three days."  it also implies leaders who will stand up to the critics who really want the program to fail because they are comfortable with what they know.

Inertia is a powerful force in civil service.  People may not like the devil they know, but they are comfortable with it and much prefer that to the devil they do not know.  Jealousy is also an issue.  "Why does Ryan get to work from home when I have to be here 5 days a week?  That's not fair!"

In return for teleworking (it's a longer jaunt than across town for me to get to work), my boss trusts that I will do what I say I will do.  It's a responsibility that must be earned every day.  As the older generation retires and the generation used to working with remote tools comes up through the ranks, things will get easier but never easy.  the culture of fear must be changed first.

Comment by Samantha McFarland on February 20, 2014 at 9:20am

One of my biggest pet peeves as a (part time) teleworker is when people apologize for bothering me while I am working at home.  I call them on it.  I tell them that the only difference between me at work and me at home is where I am sitting (well, that and my sweatpants).  I am just as available at home as I am at work.  I get more work done at home because I don't have the interruptions.  I plan my workload out as best I can so that I can work on detail-oriented work while at home.  

I am reminded of what someone once said: "Your dogs are going to be dogs, no matter where they work."  I agree with you wholeheartedly that work is about performance and not being present.  Hopefully, we will start to see more shift in the manager's mindset as time goes on.  Thank you for the article.

Comment by David B. Grinberg on February 19, 2014 at 9:25pm

Well put, Ryan, bravo!

Telework is the future whether folks like it or not. Managers can run from the virtual workplace but they can't hide forever. If gov managers don't embrace new and evolving digital/mobile technology then they will be in for a rude awakening when it embraces them.  

The federal workforce is making slow but steady progress per the Telework Enhancement Act and OPM's follow-up efforts to prod agencies in the right direction. Some agencies have adopted remote work more easily and widely than others.

Everyone needs to remember that work is what one does, not necessarily where one does it.  I would rather have a co-worker provide exemplary results through remote work than mediocre or poor results in the office.

The bottom line should be results only. It's incumbent on the teleworker to prove they are as accountable and productive -- if not more so -- via remote work than in the office. If not, then they lose the opportunity to telework.

Please see my prior blog posts on this important topic: 

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Comment by Adrian Pavia on February 19, 2014 at 9:33am

I absolutely agree that simply being present is not enough to demonstrate productivity.  It amazes me that there are still those out there who measure individual contributions in that way. 

However, I think the larger hurtle to a successful telework program is maintaining the same level of interaction and collaboration that occurs when we are all in the same room.  It may be through instant messaging, video conferencing, or collaborative content management platforms (like Dropbox or Google Drive), but there must be a way to retain the cooperative elements to work, which is arguably where we find the greatest value from our workforce. 

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