Why Telework Can’t Work for the Federal Government

The notion of “telework” isn’t new; it’s commonly used in the private sector for positions that involve analytical thought, professional work products, counseling, training, and the like. So why is OPM pushing it without Congressional mandate? (See FedSmith’s article titled “Telework in the Federal Government”).

Unlike the profit-motivators and cost-cutting measures that stimulate this type of workplace decisions for private sector employers, pushing the “telework” button with bureaucrats will not make it happen! Bureaucratic supervisors like to see their direct reports everyday; they like to keep them close at hand for impromptu meetings either with them or with higher level officials who need explanations that they are unable (or unwilling) to provide. Many take great pride in showing off how many direct-reports sit outside their hallowed office door!

Today’s “worker-bees” come to the table with graduate and post-graduate degrees, eclectic professional experiences in the private sector, and the desire to provide actual “service” in their jobs with the Federal government. Unfortunately, it was never necessary for the existing supervisory remnants employed by the Federal government to keep up with the ever changing times. Now at the apex of their self-serving careers, today’s Federal supervisors, managers, and senior officials are throwbacks to those simpler, less demanding workplace times and they’ve clung to the only supervisory techniques they’re familiar with … the antiquated methods they were subjected to in their early years with the Feds. How often I’ve heard the words “We’ve never done it that way in the past” when I’ve yearned to hear something like “thank you” instead! Simply put, it would take a sweeping Act of Congress to unleash the bull-dog and mandate what’s needed for this type of institutional change to take hold.

Here’s a good example of what I mean: Why do most Washington, D.C. based agencies require their employees to be physically present and working in or near the D.C. area when most of these National-level, policy-making positions are at grade levels high enough to allow for performance-based supervision (rather than the touch & see method of overseeing direct reports).

Allowing employees to Telework from locations throughout the country would vastly improve the D.C. pool of available and capable job candidates and it would include the entire pool of Federal employees, nationwide! It would also open the door for highly capable non-Federal employees to find reliable and purposeful work for our nation without having to relocate to one of the most expensive workplace environments in the nation!

Alas, if only the geriatric-supervisors and officials of days long passed were willing to allow employees to work from duty stations elsewhere in the United States! This novel concept would permit our Nation’s “brain-trust” of institutional knowledge to grow from the ideas that would come from staff members outside the beltline, having different perspectives and different experiences than the finite & elite Washingtonians. And, could it be so? This might help invigorate the sagging conglomerate of ideas that are incestuously moved around the beltline by people who get reassigned from one Washington agency to another but, who NEVER have worked at the service delivery level somewhere beyond the beltline, say, in the rest of this gigantic landmass we know as our fair nation!

Telework simply can’t work until the tired and washed-out Washington bureaucrats step aside and let new, more cost-saving, and quality-of-life improvements come to pass in the Federal government!

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David Kuehn

In our office in Federal Highway Administration about half the people telework on a scheduled basis and most of the rest on a task basis. We have headquarters employees who live in locations throughout the nation working virtually with physical travel to Washington DC every few weeks or months depending on need. I would say that telework is ingrained.

Doris Tirone

Your comment doesn’t suprise me David; it actually lends support to my blog! It makes sense for beltway Agencies to allow employees to work from home on a scheduled basis or to work from elsewhere in the United States in positions that allow for performance-based assessment. It also makes sense that the Fed’l Hwy Administration would allow some of its positions to work from locations around the country, given the nature of the work. Your example shows quite clearly that senior officials in your Agency understand this much better than many of the other Agencies in Washington! Perhaps it would be better to title this article, “Why Telework Can’t Work for SOME Federal Agencies”!

Andrew Larrimore

Another point from someone totally outside the beltline – I worked in the private sector for 25 years prior to entering state government and for the last 2.5 years was a total telecommuter (never went to the office). I felt I was more productive and had a better quality of life. It also saved the company money but not having to maintain expense office space but they instead had a robust online chat application, teleconferencing and internet video conferencing. I was actually part of a team that stretch from England to California. Until government embraces this “new work model” they will continue to slip behind. The secret to managing telecommuters is to have measurable work product and regular status updates.

Lanier Hall

Doris, thank you for your post. As you pointed out, management resistance is a barrier to further adoption. While there is still much work to be done, great strides have been made with telework initiatives in Federal agencies.

Many agencies have adopted and continue to enhance and promote employee telework programs. The United States Patent and Trademark Office (UPSTO), Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), National Institute of Health (NIH), Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and United States Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) are just examples of a few agencies that have successfully implemented telework programs and have seen remarkable benefits and return regarding productivity and cost savings. I think it’s important to highlight these examples to show other agencies that it can be done and it is productive and effective.

Of note, the community might be interested in a study Telework Exchange did with the Federal Managers Association. We found that the most resistant managers were ones who were not exposed to telework whatsoever. As they became more exposed to it, their impressions changed dramatically. Try it and you’ll like it. Kudos to Dr. Seuss. If anyone wants to check out the report, click here.

Bobby Caudill

Doris, as a private sector guy, I wonder if perhaps a slight change in government’s approach to telework might not be in order. More and more in the private sector, you can find companies that have simply stopped making a distinction between on-site work and off-site work, opting simply to call it work. Rather than endeavor to establish two different classes of workers, each with different rules, processes, tools, etc., companies simply supply employees with everything they need to accomplish their assigned tasks from wherever they are! In my case for instance, I can easily perform 85% of my typical work assignments from home, the office, Starbuck’s or sitting in a hotel room. The other 15% are duties that truly do require in-person interaction of some sort, so, I schedule these activities in my calendar. Bear in mind that my employer trusts me to be a professional and show up in person when it matters.

I think the point I’m trying to make is, government should be wary of making telework something unique and should seek to adopt the ideas into the mainstream culture of the workforce.

This evolution will not be without trials and tribulations, but, rather than attempt to regulate and dictate through policies that will quickly prove to be outdated and hard to change, I believe government should encourage and even reward agencies, managers and employees to loosen up and try it, disburse and allow new ways of working to emerge.

Over the past 3 or 4 years, I’ve been encouraged by the number of government agencies that really are trying to adopt the ideas. However, as mentioned above, it gets discouraging when I see the agencies struggle to develop and put in place policies before fully understanding the requirements, the benefits, and the challenges.

I realize government is different than the private sector, but I wonder, does it always have to be? 🙂

ps – the report Lanier mentions below is a great read…..

Doris Tirone

Thanks for your comment, Bobby! I’m going to share it on my LinkedIn blog in hopes that senior government officials will read your perspective on the topic!

Henry Brown

BELIEVE! the “tired and washed-out Washington bureaucrats” have no corner on the market on avoiding teleworking, I BELIEVE, they perceive it to be a loss of power.

I have enjoyed the opportunity for the past 15 years or so to telework/remote work and there have been very few managers who initially felt that remote working was the way to go. Most of them eventually realize that if they will invest in the tools, remote connectivity, more training on how to manage virtually, etc. that virtual work is the only way to go

Christopher Parente

Wow — Doris I sure hope you’re wrong. If you’re right, the only thing that will solve this problem is full-scale retirement of the senior federal management ranks.

You might be interested in this — I replied to a recent Mike Causey article on this topic, and shared a link to a survey that suggests the frustration around this issue: http://bit.ly/9lfzNj

Guy Martin

I love Bobby Caudill’s commentary here! He’s absolutely 100% right on the money. Besides all of the money spent on running a ‘telework’ program, the fact that there is a distinction simply lends credence to the idea that it is somehow different than ‘real work’.