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How to Make Telework Actually Work Government-wide

When the Telework Enhancement Act (TEA) became law in December 2010 proponents of working remotely had good reason to cheer. Yet today most telework programs at federal agencies still need further enhancement.

Telework has been around the federal government in one form or another for at least a decade. Thus, agencies have already had plenty of time for experimentation and pilot programs well before the enactment of the TEA a couple of years ago.

Number of Teleworkers Remains Low

According to OPM data, the number of federal employees who telework remains relatively low, especially for a sprawling workforce of about two million. The stats cited below are contained in OPM’s annual report to Congress on the Status of Telework in the Federal Government, 2012.

The report states that while about 685,000 feds were eligible to telework, fewer than 170,000 actively participated in telework programs within their agencies.

This appears to be a gaping disconnect.

Therefore, many previous telework cheers have turned into jeers. Most discontent from feds arises from two common situations:

  • Feds want to work remotely but are deemed ineligible for various reasons (some legitimate, others not so much), or
  • Feds are deemed eligible or ready to telework but are still held back due to management resistance, favoritism, bias, or other factors.

Bringing Agencies into Full Compliance

Of course not every federal job is conducive to telework, but many positions are (in whole or in part). Sometimes all it takes is for mid-level management to have an open mind, adapt to positive change, or simply get out of the way.

When it comes to spelling out telework policy for feds the Legislative Branch has already spoken. The Executive Branch has already spoken. What more must be done to finally bring federal agencies into full compliance?

OPM has made sure there’s no shortage of detailed guidance and resources on how agencies can get with the program. Rather than taking more baby steps as the private sector sprints ahead, Uncle Sam needs to put his boot down on the neck of federal agencies.

Sensible Solutions for Standardization

So what are some sensible solutions for transforming telework policy into standard operating procedures throughout the vast expanse of federal agencies?

How does Uncle Sam take telework to the next level, where it becomes the rule rather than the exception?

Following are three proposals for making telework actually work on a systematic level for all eligible feds government-wide, about one-third of the entire federal workforce (based on the OPM report):

1) Stronger Leadership from the Top-Down. Agency heads should cogently communicate the need for increased telework, even if that means using a bullhorn to make a breakthrough. This responsibility should not be left solely to human resource staff, telework coordinators, office managers, etc. This is because when an agency head speaks, employees usually listen attentively and act accordingly.

Once the agency head makes it clear that telework is a top priority and a business necessity, management should fall in line like dominos — from the SES down to front-line supervisors. But the command must come from the very top of the federal food chain and be articulated with vigor, especially to mid-level managers who may represent the most resistance.

2) Modify Management Performance Appraisals. Even with strong leadership from the top, some managers may need further motivation to budge and break out of the status quo. All federal managers and supervisors should understand that their professional performance is at least partially based on making telework actually work.

Management performance ratings and bonuses should be linked to successful telework implementation and fostering telework-friendly office environments for all eligible employees.

3) Additional Action by Congress. If necessary, Congress should consider more stringent follow-up legislation holding agencies accountable. How about tying a part of annual appropriations to meeting or exceeding uniform and numerical telework goals?

This would be a real incentive for agencies to adopt telework, especially during times of fiscal austerity. If it’s one thing agency heads understand it’s funding, or lack thereof.

If Congress were to pass a TEA Amendments Act, for instance, the website Telework.gov would quickly become the new bible for federal managers. This would allow the practice of working remotely to reverberate throughout all corners of the federal government.

Crediting OPM Efforts

OPM deserves much credit for pushing agencies to embrace and adopt telework. Still, much more needs to be done to expand telework to the full universe of eligible employees. Uncle Sam should step up his game in 2013 by making remote work more commonplace and desirable.

Federal agencies need to quickly transition their workforces from being telework eligible, to telework ready, to actually working remotely on a consistent basis. This would mean hundreds of thousands of feds teleworking government-wide.

It’s about time to face reality: the traditional bricks and mortar, punch-the-clock structure of the federal workplace is changing, albeit slowly but surely — regardless of resistance. Why? Because modern day innovations and advancements in technology are occurring at light speed.

In short, the future 21st century workplace has arrived.

“Technology, traffic, and the pace of 21st century life have all combined to make telework increasingly popular,” OPM tells us.

“Widespread telework practices can help save on expensive real estate; telework can also increase employee productivity, as they face fewer interruptions and more focused time. And no one misses the commute. Employees have more energy and less stress when they work on telework, and traffic congestion and pollution decrease for everyone.”

Well put OPM. Yes, telework really does work when done right. Uncle Sam needs more of it…now!

Also check out:

Work-Life Balance in a Digital/Mobile World


* All views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only.

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Terrence (Terry) Hill

I agree with getting leadership endorsement, but the best way to get leadership support is to ask them to set the example and telework themselves. I don’t think that either using a “bullhorn” or yet another worthless performance standard will have the same impact as their example.

I would also add that all agencies should participate in the upcoming Telework Week exercise on March 4-8, 2013. This would be a good place to start for agencies who are still tentative in endorseing the concept of telework on a regular basis. It’s also a great way to test the IT infrastructure to ensure that it can support mass teleworking during a future crisis.

Henry Brown

Believe that changing the performance standard for those managers opposed to teleworking will do very little to improve the quality/quantity of teleworking. I believe that, at least, part of the problem is the lack of commitment by the first line supervisors and their managers, and until they are convinced that trust is one of the first requirements for a dynamic organization suspect that teleworking will go forward in baby steps

David B. Grinberg

Thanks for sharing your always informative and valuable views on this topic, Terry and Henry.

Terry: Although I always highly respect your outlook, I have to respectfully disagree with you on this one. I really believe that unless managers are provided with strong incentives to promote telework — or faced with severe disincentives for hindering it — not much will change any time soon. However, if a manager knows their own job performance rating is on the line, I would think that must exert some influence on telework decisonmaking. Since not much else has worked, I’m sticking with the “carrot and stick” approach. Moreover, I don’t know that most managers would change their minds by working remotely themselves. The reason is because it’s arguably tougher to manage people if the teleworker is the manager — compared to teleworkers without management responsibilities who may work better autonomously and remotely. Also, thanks for sharing that great info about the upcoming Telework Week. However, with major progress lagging, perhaps we should expand the week to Telework Month — what do you think? Perhaps after that we can have a quarterly Telework Month rather than an annual one. Incremental progress is still progress nonetheless.

Henry: First, I would reiterate that I strongly believe that enough “carrot” and enough “stick” would have a beneficial impact per management performance standards. It may be a question of how much is too much, or too little. Further, I agree with you that the bulk of the problem with expanding telework may be due to first-line supervisors and their managers — some of whom thrive on micromanagement and/or management abuse. But that’s just theoretical, I think. Are you aware of any empirical evidence one way or the other?

Again,as always, many thanks gentlemen for sharing your important insights on telework — or lack thereof.


Henry Brown

Employee Survey Section 7
Indicates that ~334700 employees (51.4%) have NOT been told that they are eligible to telework whereas only ~188000 (29.8%) believe that they are NOT eligible to telework.

That leaves ~146700 employees(~22 percent) who have been left in the dark…. Guess that there could be several different reasons for the difference and it would probably next another survey(and several million dollars) to determine the exact reasons.

Would BELIEVE that at least a significant percentage of the 22% (and if you take it out to the ENTIRE community it becomes ~350,000 employees) are NOT being told about teleworking because of a lack of believe in the program

Gerard R. Wenham

The infrastructure for a culture-transforming adaptation of telework is crucial. For example:

Providing information technology equipment in both home and work locations (or at least technology that is sufficiently portable to make it not a major chore to haul back and forth – tablet-type size rather than 20-pound full-size laptops with accessories) would encourage and facilitate teleworking, especially that done on a regular, routine basis. Having the technology in both home and office would also facilitate ad hoc/emergency teleworking (you can’t telework properly on a snow day if the work computer is still in the office).

Regular, sustained full-time teleworking would also be more useful if paired with explicit shared “hoteling” arrangements for those infrequent occasions when a regular, full-time teleworker needs to come in to the office. Under this scenario, not only would there be benefits to the worker, in terms of flexibility and less commuting cost and time, as well as benefits to society from less traffic and less pollution, there would also be potential benefits to agency budgets, by reducing the real estate footprint required to maintain an office on a full-time basis.

David B. Grinberg


Great points about the IT tools neeeded for telework. I plan to explore that issue in Part 2 of this series. I also like your advice about hoteling, which most feds may still think means booking a room at the Hyatt for official travel.

The NIH website has very helpful information on best practices and related resources about hoteling. According to NIH:

“Why is the practice spreading?”

  • “Hoteling minimizes the square footage of the office. The lower the square footage of an office, the lower the cost to lease the space.
  • Many of today’s knowledge workers spend more than half their time away from their offices (travel, meetings, annual/sick leave, and/or flexible work arrangements).
  • Office hoteling provides employees with the flexibility to work from more than one location.
    Allows for more flexible staffing options.
  • Enhances quality of work life for employees.”
David B. Grinberg

Government Executive reports:

Telework Keeps People On The Job Longer

“Technology has been touted as a means for retiring federal workers to pass on their knowledge and expertise to tech-savvy new hires. But that may not be the only benefit it is having on knowledge transfer in the federal government. In fact, telework is playing a big factor in many retirement-eligible federal employees deciding to stay in their jobs – giving agencies an even longer window to capture their knowledge and expertise.

Andrew Krzmarzick, director of community engagement for GovLoop, writes in a blog post that telework may be a major driver of Baby Boomers deciding to stay in their jobs beyond their retirement age. He quotes a recent GovLoop interview with Nick Nayak, chief procurement officer at the Homeland Security Department, who noted that while 20-25 percent of DHS’ workforce is at retirement-eligible age or soon to be, DHS workers in 2012 did not retire as quickly as they have in the past.”

David B. Grinberg

Federal Computer Week reports:

USDA points to telework’s bottom-line benefits

“Plenty of agencies are boosting their efficiency through telework, as a newly-released study makes clear. The Agriculture Department is starting to see actual dollar savings, providing a concrete example of the value of allowing employees to work from home. USDA’s telework polices will save the agency some $8 million just in transportation subsidies to employees in fiscal year 2013, and the agency has set a goal, which agency officials describe as “aggressive,” of having 55 percent of its eligible workforce log telework time over the coming year – much more than the federal agency average.”

Karen L. Jones

I have worked in a government agency where my boss teleworked, as did the members of his staff. We teleworked successfully because:

  1. Performance expectations were clear. We knew what we had to work on and produce, regardless of whether we worked in the office or from home. Much of our work required analysis and weeks worth of work before a final report was produced, but our boss knew how much time it normally took to develop one, and that is the standard we were held to.
  2. Our boss trusted us to do our work whether he was there or not, or whether we were in the office or not. We had daily schedules that we kept and advertised to co-workers. Our boss did not micromanage our day, even though he did require a co-worker whom he believed was “skipping out” to email in and out daily and provide progress reports. Once that co-worker rebuilt his trust, our boss dropped that requirement.

I see the main implementation roadblock as a combination of these two factors. If you don’t trust your employees, you aren’t going to manage their overall performance well. Micromanagement, insisting that you know what your employees are doing every minute of their workday (as if you know that when they are sitting in their cubicle), and lack of willingness to allow teleworking simply communicates that you do not trust your employees.

The main argument I hear from supervisors in our agency is “how will I know what my employee is doing?” as if working from home 2 days a week somehow makes the employee incognito. They fail to recognize that their management style is what affects the entire situation, not the fact that their employee is not in the office. Most likely, the employee will be doing what they do now in the office, but there is a good chance they will make a more concerted effort at producing since they know that 1) their boss trusts them to do their work at home, and 2) they want to keep teleworking.

Management training needs to include setting performance-based outcomes for employees, as well as equipping them with strategies for dealing with a remote workforce. I know in one company that I worked in that management was very resistant to telework until they had a 1/2 day training class on “managing your teleworkers,” and understood that their current management techniques were all that were really required to manage ALL their employees — they just needed tips on communicating with their remote workers and learned how to set guidelines for all their workers on things such as scheduling, meeting attendance, etc., which they should have done even if all of their employees had been in the office.