Leadership Lessons from Telework


One of the most interesting things I’ve observed about telework is that it shines a bright spotlight on leadership and supervision in an organization. It’s almost as if stripping away the bricks and mortar strips away the duck blinds of an organization’s culture.

All the recent discussion was launched a year ago after undocumented hours were discovered in a single examiner known as Examiner A. The Examiner A report makes an excellent case study for people looking to improve leadership and supervision in their organizations. There are some very good lessons to be learned. It’s worth a read. Here are some of my observations.

Leadership lesson #1 People are people. People got all excited because this guy had squeezed $25,000 of pay out of the federal government because he was teleworking. No. He squeezed $25,000 in pay out of the federal government because he was not a good guy. Remember the guy who worked at the Environmental Protection Agency who conned the federal government out of $1 million in pay by saying he was an undercover CIA agent because it gave him a thrill? That guy never teleworked. If people decide to squeeze the system, they will figure out a way to make that happen. No amount of policy writing or rule making is going to change that.

Leadership lesson #2 People equate consistency with fairness. The guy at the Patent and Trademark Office got caught, not because his management laid down the law, but because his coworkers got fed up. Examiner A was allowed to telework more than the rules of the PTO permitted. The hard-working, high performing people of the PTO decided this was unfair. His colleagues turned him in. The report seems to imply that the problem occurred because there weren’t enough rules around work schedules and using your badge to exit the building. Certainly, that was a contributing factor.

However, there were plenty of rules in place. Rules like how many days a week you can telework. Rules that were ignored. I get it. People hate rules. A lot of rules make no sense from the perspective of an individual person. They are meant to guide or drive a large ecosystem. Everyone who travels for the federal government can give you 10 examples of this. One of the key functions of rules is to ensure consistency. To make sure that in similar situations people are treated in a similar way. This is so very important because human beings equate consistency with fairness. At the PTO the employees who followed the rules and did a good job had less telework flexibility than Examiner A. They finally got fed up. I can’t blame them. To preserve a sense of fair play, supervisors have to follow the rules laid out for them. Senior leaders have to back them up when they following those rules.

Leadership lesson #3 Don’t let the process drive an illogical outcome. There were two things in this report that had nothing to do with telework that actually shocked me. After 34 years in federal government human resources, I am very hard to shock. They managed to do it. First, in an effort to be open, transparent, and flexible, management negotiated away its right to know when it’s employees were working. Supervisors can’t even ask employees when they’re planning to work. As a result, supervisors are on duty pretty much 24 hours a day. No supervisor can function effectively in that environment. I am sure they did this with the most noble and best of intentions. I really am. But in the grand scheme of things, this is completely unworkable. The second thing (this actually made me spit coffee across the room) was that Examiner A received three unsatisfactory ratings in a row. Why was this employee even allowed to continue to work for the federal government? I’m guessing there’s a reason that is not apparent to outsiders, but whatever that reason is, things would be over.

There’s a lot to be learned from this report. If you’re taking a leadership or management class this is a great one to use as a case study. If you’re a supervisor or leader in the federal government, read it from the perspective of how the system impacts the way people react. Read it from the perspective of an organization as an ecosystem. Read it from the perspective of how organizations set themselves up to succeed or fail. Just don’t read it as an assessment of telework.

Jeri Buchholz is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

Leave a Comment

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply