In a recent post titled, Ready for the Remote Work Revolution?, author David Grinberg provides a compelling argument for the future of telework. David’s comments are clear…telework is here to stay! I agree with David whole-heartedly. In fact, I envision a day when the term telework will be a word of the past; much in the same way that today you never hear of a “horseless carriage” (aka car) anymore.
Ever since I established myself as a work location-agnostic advocate, I’ve faced two extremes. On one hand, some people embrace my stance and say, “well, no duh.” On the other hand, others go as far as questioning my integrity and intelligence, stating that despite technological advances, there is no way that work can happen without a “centralized commuter office.” In essence, if all knowledge workers started working from home and/or an office close to their house, productivity would plummet to the point that the economy fall apart and we would be thrown into a modern dark ages.
I’ve always been curious why telework resisters are so dismissive of what appears to me as an imminent future, where at the very least, most people do not travel across town to sit in a cube farm every day. David refers to this as “Employer Intransigence,” and highlights management resistance and entrenched bureaucracy as the culprits.
In this post I add a third, complimentary reason which explains the employer intransigence problem. I call it the “clerical culture,” which describes a work culture that was created during a time when most government work was low-skill and routine. I explore how government agencies struggle to relate jobs to their respective missions, how a recent report from the Partnership for Public Service exposes a tremendous workplace shift over the past several decades, and finally why I’m worried that my Generation Y colleagues are preserving the status quo over embracing the future.
What is your job’s bigger purpose?
I’m a big believer in the “high autonomy, high accountability” workplace. When I share this opinion with most people, they automatically believe that I’m preaching for a laissez faire management style that bans collaboration and promotes isolation. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Instead, I strongly believe that each job has a purpose greater than just “showing up and trying hard.” The closer that an agency can get to defining what that purpose is, the better we will be able to identify and measure activities that add value to that purpose.
For whatever reason government REALLY struggles with defining it’s higher purpose. I’ve found that the easiest way to start is to ask the question, “What would not get done if our agency disappeared tomorrow?” Ken Miller’s book, “We Don’t Make Widgets” is probably the best guide I’ve found that can help government leaders, at any level, get closer to that truth.
Here is how this ties into the telework debate. When most managers/leaders of agencies look at how to implement telework, they ask the question, “How will we measure whether or not the person is working?” That leads us down a rabbit hole where even the brightest and most competent managers start talking about doing minute-by-minute screen shots or requiring hourly check in emails for the person not at the office. When I’ve spoken with California State Government leaders about telework they often say something like, “We tried it in the past, but we couldn’t get a hold of anyone.” So, after a 6 month attempt the pilots are often abandoned in favor of the butts-in-seats culture that predates the internet.
Very few California state government agencies have had success with telework. Those that have usually had very “widget” based production lines. (If you have read Ken Miller’s books you may pick up on my sarcasm). As the logic goes, these “widget shops” can create a baseline for production and measure that production against a time norm. So, if you are supposed to produce 4 reports a week, then you can telework as long as you get those 4 reports done. The question begs… can I do fewer reports if I just show up to the office every day? The answer usually is a resounding YES! (This drives me nuts).
Why don’t government leaders actively measure “work production” against an Agency’s greater purpose? Usually every agency has its purpose buried somewhere in statute, so it shouldn’t be impossible to find. What’s the disconnect? I believe that it has less to do with the ability of state leaders, and more to do with the time period in which many of our government agencies were created.
Greater shift in Government Work
Last week’s report on the Federal Civil Service put forth by the Partnership for Public Service had one very telling statistic that I thought didn’t get it’s full due in the media. Over the past 50 years, the makeup of the “paper-pushing” professionals in government has undergone a dramatic shift. In the past, 70% of government jobs were considered clerical and required low skill. Today, the report states that almost 70% of jobs are now considered professional/administrative. While I can’t confirm that this is true in all government settings, anecdotal evidence I’ve collected from my “agency elders” tells me that this is true in California state government.
Has our government workplace culture adapted with this dramatic shift in jobs? My personal experience tells me no. All one needs to do is look at the many outdated personnel handbooks and listen to the “on-boarding” trainings that each manager gives their employees. California state workers are expected to “report on time for their shifts” and “adhere to the 15 minute break policy.” Most job postings begin with something to the effect of, “incumbents shall maintain consistent attendance.”
Does telework work in a clerical culture where attendance is the primary value? Yes, but it is rare. The need to be present and “ready for work” is so imbedded in the culture that the very mention of anything outside the traditional M-F, 8-5 is seen as heretical.
For someone that may have forgone college and gone straight into the workforce, the clerical mindset may have worked very well. After all, our entire modern school system basically states that if you put in your hours and learn enough to earn a mediocre score on a test, you pass and get promoted to the next level (sound familiar?).
Ramifications for Generation Y and Beyond
Here is where the rub comes in for Gen Y and beyond. I imagine that most of Gen Y entering federal or state civil service in a professional/administrative job will do so with a completed college degree. In California, you must have a college degree to get a job as an analyst, for example. So, you go from high school which follows the clerical model, to college which follows the “sink or swim” model. In essence, if you don’t get the information you need to pass the test or write the term paper, you fail the course. Some people get the information by showing up to class and listening to the lectures. Others are better at learning by reading the text books. Others learn better in study groups. Most employ a combination of all three. All of these activities can happen almost anywhere, whether it is out in the quad, in a library, in a classroom, or at a bar. As one of my friends said, college is less about learning random facts and more about learning how to manage our time.
In college you have considerable autonomy. If you don’t pass a class you have to take it again. What if we applied the current telework reasoning to college? I can imagine a college administrator now: “Ryan, you failed bonehead English again. We are going to pass you anyway, but you are no longer allowed to study in your dorm room or in the quad. Instead, you will need to study in the library during the day under the supervision of a librarian. Also, if you need to go to the bathroom at all, you will need to note that on the white board…”
Guess what happens if you choose to pursue a career in government? More often than not, you will be shoved back into a “high school culture” where attendance and mediocre performance rules the day. Do you want to work hard so that you can get your work done early and take a three day weekend? Forget it! Want to work from home (much like you did in your dorm room in college)? Hell no! You need to be in the office.
The worst part is that I see some of my career hungry friends in government adapting to the high-school/clerical mindset in order to advance. I initially hoped that Gen Y would rise up and push back; however, I’ve personally found that doing so may come at the expense of career opportunities.
It’s no wonder that as many as 50% of Federal employees are interested in seeking private sector employment. The Partnership for Public Service report and the Washington DC media always seem to focus on pay as being the number one reason why “govies” want to jump ship. That may be a factor, but I don’t believe it tells the whole story. While there is no guarantee that a private sector job will be utopia, my personal network tells me that it is generally more adult than the standard government environment with its clerical culture.
When I once told my private sector friends that I have to “check out on a white board” every time I go to the bathroom, the group erupted in laughter. On the outside, it sounds ludicrous. Inside the government culture, to the people I worked for at the time, it made perfect sense. They have been stuck in the clerical workforce model for their entire career. And, they continue to be rewarded with praise for their attendance, even if the focus on attendance distracts us from what I consider to be the most important question – are we adding value to our agency’s mission?
My hope is that leaders from Gen X and Gen Y will partner together to do what the Baby Boomers should have done a long time ago – define how each position in our organization adds value to its mission statement. Then, we need to shift our management focus away from the clerical values of attendance and availability toward true accountability. I don’t mean accountability to the clock, but rather accountability to the people of the United States that we are supposed to serve. This has many complications; including examining our attitudes toward what “hard work” is defined as. This may include spending a lot of time, maybe even a decade, doing what Steven Covey defined as “sharpening the saw” instead of continuing to cut down trees with dull blades.
Ok, I’ll step off my soap box now and solicit your comments. Who is with me or against me? Sound off below!