Telework Resistance may be Linked to “Clerical Culture”

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!

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David B. Grinberg

Ryan, you make so many exemplary points that I don’t know where to begin. I think and hope that decades from now, when Millennials and then Gen Z run the world, folks will look back and laugh at the traditional outdated work structure — with employees stuck in offices and cubicles like cattle.

I look forward to the day when results-only work environments, or ROWE, become the norm rather than the rare exception to antiquated rules. On a positive note, I think the future looks bright as Gen Y eventually assumes management of gov at every level. Perhaps then we will see some real change and substantive improvements on a mass scale.


Deborah Sorgel

You are so right! There are times when I have NO projects to work on, but someone is still clocking whether I take a “too-long” lunch or leave a few minutes early. On the other hand, when I am busy…I am not allowed to work overtime. This makes no sense. In private industry, we consider it a “wash” and work the hours we need to get the job done.

We also celebrate “telework” day, and I see all the signs, but while many of us are still denied the opportunity to telework while others with the same or similar job titles are cleared to telework. Depends on the manager not the job. Maybe managers need training on how to monitor productivity by the product not the hour.

Good insights.

Andeen Drayton

This was a great piece Ryan, and let’s just say you hit many of those proverbial nails on their heads with one hammer…well done! The “high-school/clerical mindset” as you so aptly put it, and the “butts in seats” approach to management is something I – like yourself – had hoped to see change with the time. However, government (unfortunately) is one of the last bastions of management by way of “overseeing”.

Sadly, I’ve heard some managers say bluntly, “How can I manage if there’s no one here to manage?”. And while they stop short of saying it, there’s an entitlement issue as well. The underlying perception is that telework is a “perk” (right there, a VERY misguided notion!) for those in the upper echelons. Almost every person I work with is no stranger to seeing an email from a manager on any given day saying they’re working from home that day – nothing planned in advance – just something they can choose to do. By contrast, telework is translated as staff looking to horn in on what they actually perceive as a privilege, not a different and possibly more effective way of working.

This mindset as far as I can see it has a direct link to the hierarchical culture still prevalent in government. When that changes, we might actually enter the 21st century.

Ryan Arba

@Deborah and Andeen – Thank you for your contributions. I do think training must accompany a greater shift in thinking. I just had lunch with my mentor today and we spoke about how the “telework” topic has been on the table for over 25 years. I’m hoping that, as a society, we are getting close to a tipping point where our attitudes will change rapidly. We can only keep pushing forward! Thanks again – Ryan

Phyllis Laura Isaacs

Good points. Minor nitpicks: that’s “laissez faire.” And “begs the question” — despite the fact that it is frequently misused to mean the contrary — actually means “avoids,” not “raises” the question. Sorry, I can’t help it; I’m a Virgo! Please forgive. 🙂

Bob Maslyn

Ryan, you argue your case with two extremes in mind, comparing high frequency telework against a clerical culture with no telework. That’s a skewed case you make, and I suspect you are capable of a more nuanced understanding than that. That may be unfortunately the reality in your agency, but it strikes me what we need is a reasonable middle ground, where it’s not telework or not, but how to integrate telework with in-person worksplaces. You diss the workplace as so much wasted activity in cubicles. That happens in some places but that workplace can itself be transformed into more of an open space concept. Why? Because what is critical in federal work is cultivating teamwork, not hotshots, and teamwork has a better shot at bonding when people spend some dedicated time face to face. In the Agile Principles, a key principle is that face to face communication is the best way to convey information. That’s important, and that doesn’t say anything negative about occasional telework. I would like to see the evolution of a matrix which identifies what type of work best is suited for telework and what type is best suited to in-person collaboration. Incidently, attendance and availability matter not only for in-person workplaces but also for teleworking because everyone showing up to work together gets real results, wherever they may be. People who spend time together in person, who have different personalities, preferences, and style, have a better shot at developing critical interpersonal skills in dealing with difficult people. Federal work has alot of competing contradictions in policies and many areas for dealing with difficult people, for a host of reasons. While telework has its place, learning how to develop skills in dealing with difficult people on difficult issues should be a core competency that Gen Y ought to develop, and that’s best done in the meeting rooms and other venues where people face each other and negotiate and find a way to move forward together. The answers we all seek is the balance between in-person open space workplaces (where everyone, including managers, are more accessible) and periodic telework has a place.

James Goodman

I believe that humans are social animals. Our history and existence have depended on our ability for social interactions. That said, my believe is telework can be a great convenience to employees and possible cost savings to employers there remains value in face-to-face time with peers and management. My caveat is the extent of telework. I place a greater value on the opportunities for face-to-face collaboration and the synergy created in informal discussion with peers and managers. This has allowed me to gain insights and make connections not available to the frequent teleworker. I’m not dismissing telework; I’m just stating the positive outcomes of in-person interaction. Maybe when we have Star Trek Holodeck capabilities I’ll be more incline to increased my tele/holowork.

Mark Kovacevich

As someone formerly in the Government space (both Military and Contractor), I sympathize with your issues around the clerical culture. However, as someone in the private sector, I can report that many companies (even tech companies) are very averse to remote work. Even though my job can be done anywhere where there is an Internet connection, I am still encouraged to come into the office.

The reason? Collaboration. The face-to-face connection with the rest of the team is very valuable. We are social animals, after all.

However, having some flexibility is nice, and the way it is handled varies from manager to manager and organization to organization.

Just my $.02. Cheers!

John L. Waid

Government is notoriously resistant to change, even when that change holds tremendous advantages. Historically, bureaucracies’ # 1 mantra is to maintian control of their people. This has been more important than anything else, even the mission. Teleworking is the ultimate loss of control.

The comments bring up interestng points. I suspect that if Ryan were writing a paper here rather than posting to a blog with its space limitations, he would have gone into more depth on the nuances. Most of the time, when we think “telework,” we are really talking about part time teleworking — two or three days a week. I think that goes without saying. I am not sure that agencies have not had success with teleworking in California. Our agency appear to have been quite successful. It’s more that agencies don’t want it to be successful and so throw up roadblocks and put articifical standards up that no one can meet and thus justify their original mind set. Most agencies have had teleworking thrust on them due to reasons of office space, etc., and do not really want to do it. “The governor says we have to do it, so we’ll put a few people on to get his minoins off our backs and take them off when the heat is off.” Agencies are more comfortable with the devil they know (everybody in the office) than the devil they don’t (teleworking).

The pervasive culture of fear must be overcome for agencies to truly embrace a concept like teleworking. Fear of the people higher up and fear by the higher-ups that the lower-downs might make a mistake that would get the higher ups in trouble. It is much easier to supervise than to manage. “Ryan was in his seat promptly at 8, went on break at 9:30 and stayed his alloted time, [and so on]. You can’t blame me for the work not getting done; I did my job!” Teleworkers have to be managed — “Ryan is getting the work done. what’s the problem?” managing involves discretion, and that brings on the risk of displeasing someone higher up if that person wants something the teleworker can’t immediately deliver because he is working from home.

The late comedian Jackie Vernon used to say “There are two sides to every broken window.” There are also down sides to telecommuting, like everything else. As the commenters point out, when a manager is considering people for promotion, the people who come to mind first are the ones he sees every day. If the teleworker sees that as an issue, he doesn’t have to telework. People do tend to get promoted by imitating their superiors, which makes it harder for new ideas to take hold which is probably why teleworking has mostly been imposed from above.

Don’t forget the responsibility we teleworkers incur. We have to be self-starters. We have to have the discipline to sit down and plug away. By getting the work done on time and in as good a manner as being at the office would produce, we support our managers who had faith in us and help to justify more teleworking.

Certain jobs do lend themselves to telewroking more than others. Jobs that require a lot off inter-working with other members of the staff do not lend themselves to teleworking so well. Agencies may not want to spend the money for software bush as Go to Meeting which would make telework meetings easier (and then blame the lack of face to face contact on teleworking itself rather than their own unwillingness to buy the necessary tools).

Laura Shugrue

I agree that telework is here to stay, but I am not in the “true believer” category. There are both pros and cons to telework, and a lot of supporters tend to brush off or not address the cons. You talk about how government work has changed from clerical to professional but you don’t address how we change the way we measure performance. It’s a lot more difficult now that we don’t count widgets, especially since we don’t have the bottom line of profits that private sector has. Until we can figure out how to effectively measure performance, there will be resistance by managers. Also, until we can effectively measure performance, there will be abuse by employees (let’s not pretend this doesn’t happen). So let’s take some time to figure out how to do it right rather than jumping into it because it’s the thing to do.

John L. Waid

Benchmarking is a problem for government as a whole, teleworking included. We are by and large a service industry. WE do not produce anything. Yes, many agencies produce regular reports, but that isn’t the same as making cars. All therese programs that propose measuirng performance have the basic difficulty of how to establish a benchmark. At this point, I think the best we can say is that teleworking has to be measured by whatever benchmark the manager usees to measure performance in the office.

No, it won’t be perfect. yes, there will be abuse. Most government employees are human beings (There are a couple around here I am not sure about.) As long however, as the teleworking employee gets the job done (whatever that means in the context of the office) who cares if he goes outside and works on his tan three hours a day? That is why I say teleworking requires an increased emphasis on managing rather than supervising. Managing is harder, requiring more discretion and thus more risk. Government managers are risk-averse and get ahead by imitating their superiors.

As teleworkers, it is our responsibility to do our best to make the program work and justify our managers’ trust that we will do what we say we will do. Ultimately, it is up to the teleworker to give the manager nothing to point to to justify his desire to eliminate the program. As teleworking is increasingly being forced on government a reliable teleworking force is a manager’s best defense.

Rachael Weatherly

I love the comparisons to high school and college – such a fresh perspective to me. We are in the midst of implementing a very aggressive telework policy in our Agency and some offices “get it” more than others. I struggle with motivating my employees – whether they are in the office or not, and it frustrates me to no end that managers tolerate lower levels of responsiveness and productivity, but balk at the same in the context of mobile work.

The fear of abuse is also looming, but again, what matters most is that the work gets done, not where and when. That requires a shift though in how we conceptualize work, productivity, performance and so many other facets of the workplace that many are resisting. Culture takes a long time to change but it is happening slowly.

Ryan Arba

Hi Everyone – thank you for your in-depth and enthusiastic comments. Many of your thoughts have inspired me to write a few other posts in the near future. I hope you will take the time to chime in as well when those get published.

I saw a theme throughout the comments regarding two related points – performance management and the social context of work. Here are a few thoughts:

1. Performance management: from what I can gather both government and private industry struggle to manage knowledge workers. My Work Anywhere Nation co-founder Fred Pilot addressed this issue directly back in November on our blog, stating that being a knowledge worker is a lot like working in a “decision factory.” This is especially true if you work in a policy making “shop,” which is what occupies a significant portion of California state government cube farms. If government exists for the public benefit, and the tools to facilitate a decision can exist anywhere (i.e., laptop, phone, internet connection), why does anyone care where the decisions are made as long as they benefit the public?

If anyone is concerned with how to measure government work in our “decision factories,” I suggest you read Ken Miller’s book “We Don’t Make Widgets.” If you send me a message on GovLoop I would be happy to help you through your specific situation.

2. Social context of work – I imagine that for many people the thought of being isolated at home all day and night must be frightening. For some folks, the thought of peace and quiet without the daily commute would be a gift from the heavens. Is there a way for extroverted folks to get the social interaction they desire without the need to move into an apartment across the street from their “centralized commuter office?”

Yes, and government is the perfect candidate to implement the idea. It’s called the distributed workplace. In essence, government employees could “report” to a regional office during the week for many, non-performance related reasons. Instead of each office being controlled by a single agency, there could a work space for employees to touch down if they need a place to get there work done. Every day I drive by thousands of feet of empty office space on my way to an overcrowded office downtown. Why not give the distributed workplace a shot?

Finally, I hope you will all consider signing up for my blog at Thanks again!