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The Modern Workplace

At 5:30 am the alarm on my phone informs me it is time to start the day. Jumping out of bed, I complete the normal routine of brushing my teeth, combing my hair, working out, showering, and getting dressed. I grab a cup of coffee and sit down…at work. I have just saved a ton of time, the frustration and cost of a commute, and have more flexibility to balance the work-life equation than my counterparts in the office. I love my life!

When I speak with others who work in government and I say, “My office is at headquarters, but I live about two hours away so I work from home most of the time,” their response is surprise, amazement and disbelief. When I speak with people working in private industry and I state the same thing, I am met with understanding and acceptance.

Why aren’t more government employees working remotely?

For the past five years I have been researching telecommuting, teleworking, mobile workforce or whatever it may be called, in my spare time. (Which is a fine example of what you can do without a commute). My team and I have bench-marked several agencies on their policies, procedures and practices too.

We recently had the pleasure of speaking with Jeff Mottishaw, Senior Consultant in Utah’s Governor’s Office of Management and Budget. We learned that Utah state government has had remarkable and recent successes. In fact, Utah just released information on their website about their teleworking program called, A New Workplace. Their tagline for this program says it all, “Modernizing Where, How, And When Utah Works”. 

The Benefits of Teleworking

Over the past six years, my primary workplace has been a desk in my basement next to the fireplace. I do spend about 4-6 days in the office each month for collaborative work. However, I have always felt that I get more done from home. Do I have a metric to prove this? No, it is just a feeling. But, according to Utah’s pilot results my ‘feeling’ is justified. Utah reports a 20% increase in employee productivity. Utah also reports the following improvements based on their pilot:

  • Over 273 pounds of emissions not created each month
  • $220,000 saved on real estate usage (office space)
  • The creation of 1 new job in rural Utah
  • 3 employees retained that would have otherwise left state service

Utah’s pilot included the participation of 136 employees.  Because of these early measurements, Utah plans to move forward and over the next 18 months they will increase participation to a 30% adoption rate, which equates to 2,555 employees. If they reach this goal, they have the potential to:

  • Reduce emissions by 1,300 pounds per month
  • Save 63,900 sq. ft. of office space
  • Create 200 jobs in rural Utah
  • Retain 56 employees
  • Maintain or increase employee’s baseline productivity

The state of Tennessee also has a robust program that is called Alternative Workplace Solutions. I have not had the opportunity to call and speak with those leading this effort. However, that is now on my to-do list. A case study, Tennessee’s Alternative Workplace Solutions Initiative, provides a ton of great information about their mature program. According to Utah’s business case for their pilot effort, Tennessee realized the following benefits in the first two years of implementation:

  • 60% of managers say employees have improved productivity
  • 80% of employees say they have a better work-life balance
  • 37% reduction in sick leave use
  • Estimated average fuel savings for the employee at $1,800/year
  • $6.5 million reduction in real-estate rental costs
  • Estimated proceeds of $40 – $60 million for sale of one unused downtown Nashville building

Some other fascinating points in Utah’s Pilot Report that I would like to note, including that they found a positive impact on the employee experience and that teleworking was a catalyst for change. I can completely relate to the better employee experience because I live it daily.

But, how did teleworking create change? It changed how Utah planned their space, how they managed performance, it made teams look at their processes and improve them, it provided a stronger foundation to go paperless, and it improved virtual communications.

The Challenges of Teleworking

In my experience there are challenges to working from home too. I am a very social person and not having others around me daily was an adjustment. I also struggle to maintain a clear line between work and home. Meaning that I will find myself working later than scheduled and answering emails at night and on the weekends. I also tend to fill moments of boredom with work instead of reading a good book or exploring other hobbies.

But, I have learned to adjust. Daily communications with my team members outside of email are a must. I strive to not work too many hours over 40 each week. Balancing work and life is a constant challenge, but this takes continual monitoring and maintenance from everyone whether they are working from home or not.

There are challenges noted in Utah’s business case too where it is sited that Jane Watson at the 2018 Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) National Conference, spoke about the following challenges:

  • Limitations in knowledge sharing between employees
  • Potential reduction for the individual visibility of employees to each other and management
  • Employees experiencing feelings of isolation
  • The blurring of work-life boundaries
  • Additional complexities in managing and resolving conflict
  • Increase in employee anxiety
  • Communication
  • Coordination
  • Culture

Looking back, it seems like it was easy when I started working from home. I was offered the opportunity, my supervisor made sure I had everything I needed in my home workspace, and we tested out virtual technology. Looking deeper, however, there were many challenges we faced. We changed processes to include me as a remote worker. My team modified how meetings took place. We changed how we managed the team’s projects and tasks so that I could easily manage their workloads from two hours away. And in reality, we still do this at times when something out of the norm takes place.

Are You Ready for a Modern Workplace?

It would be fascinating to have data on how many federal, state and local agencies have current policy and procedure in place for a mobile workforce. I would also like to see the data that shows if these policies and procedures are put into practice. In my conversations talking with other agencies, I have found that many of them do have policy and procedure, but not many of them are actively allowing people to work from home. Why? Because it is a change.

Many of the supervisors I speak with about teleworking are resistant to try it with their staff. One supervisor told me they would allow it if there was a keystroke counter installed on their staff’s computers. Is this how they measure their employees’ performance now? By the keystroke? I would guess the answer is ‘No’. This response, and many others that are similar, from supervisors are natural reactions to change. Change is scary. Change is hard.

If we expect our remote work policies and procedures to become a regular practice in our organizations, we need to provide our supervisors and our employees the resources, tools, training and coaching necessary for it to be successful. Awareness is needed to build desire. Training, measuring and reinforcement are vital to sustaining the effort. We need to teach our supervisors how to measure employee performance whether their employees work in the office or from home. Just because an employee is sitting at a desk where they are seen doesn’t mean they are productive.

As for me, I enjoy working from home and I get so much accomplished every day. I have the ability to provide leadership, management and supervision within the programs, projects and teams for which I  am responsible. Working from home is truly a benefit to me. Which, in turn, provides more value to the citizens for which we all strive to serve.

To find out more about working from home, you may be interested in the article by Lauren Girardin,  How to Work From Home If You’ve Never Done It.

Michelle Malloy is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. She has been a devoted Colorado state employee for nearly 13 years. In that time, she had dedicated herself to being the best steward leader possible, ensuring that everyone and everything left in her care are nurtured and developed in order to provide the best value and service to the citizens of the state of Colorado today and into the future. Michelle’s expertise lies in strategy, program management, project management, change management, process improvement, facilitation and working with people. Michelle believes that people are the government’s #1 asset and the products and services we aim to provide and improve upon would not happen without them. You can read her posts here.

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Profile Photo Katie Malone

Wow, the statistics about teleworking say it all. Teleworking seems to make sense for both employees and the agency as a whole. But, like you alluded to, a culture shift is needed before employers feel comfortable making the switch.