How to Effectively Manage a Distributed Workforce

This blog post is an excerpt from GovLoop’s recent guide The Human Resources Playbook for Government. Download the full guide here.

For a growing number of government employees, work is less about where they’re located and more about the work they’re doing. Technology has freed employees from being chained to desktop computers and enabled them to work from anywhere — home, hotels, coffee shops or in the field.

But managing and enabling today’s distributed workforce requires more than technology. There must be clear expectations between employees and managers to ensure that productivity doesn’t slip and workplace relationships don’t diminish. Whether employees are working in the office or remotely, operations should be seamless, said Danette Campbell, Director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s Telework Program.

The number of teleworkers at USPTO ballooned from 18, who lived within a 50-mile commuting radius, in 1997 to 10,879 by the end of the fourth quarter of 2016. More than half of these teleworkers work from home four to five days a week and are distributed across the United States, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. To put that into perspective, 86 percent of the entire USPTO workforce teleworks at least one day a week.

The agency’s total workforce has doubled since 2006 to nearly 13,000 employees, but USPTO has not had to increase its real estate footprint on its Virginia campus. “If we had to call back all of these full-time teleworkers and find real estate for them, we would have to secure about $34 million-plus in real estate to house them,” Campbell said. “There’s a huge return on investment associated with our telework programs and the agency has done everything that it can do to make [telework] strategic, transparent and seamless.”

Campbell offered these recommendations for managing a distributed workforce, particularly those who telework.

Establish rules of the road for telework, such as performance standards for employees, and make them available via your agency’s intranet or telework resource site. It sounds like a no-brainer, but failure to do so can create friction if the dos and don’ts around telework are not made clear.

Training is a must, not just for rank-and-file employees but managers too. Does your agency offer training and resources for managing a distributed workforce? If not, consider taking cues from USPTO. The agency conducts focus sessions around telework and an annual recertification training to ensure everyone knows the agency’s telework guidelines. 

All teleworkers at USPTO participate in two types of training: one for IT and one for non-IT. Training includes performance requirements, responsibilities and expectations. Employees must be comfortable establishing a virtual private network connection and using their personal identity verification card to securely access USPTO resources.

Ongoing communication is key. “You cannot just distribute laptops and say, ‘Go home and prosper,’” Campbell said. “When we talk to people about managing teleworkers [or] a distributed environment, we say that accountability, engagement and a shared sense of purpose will really unite this distributed workforce. Those are the same components in the brick-and-mortar environment.”

Ensure collaboration tools and IT resources can support employee communications and workloads. Make sure all employees, not just those who are distributed, are comfortable using collaboration tools. Set expectations around the frequency and methods that will be used to communicate.

Clear performance expectations and managerial trust are critical to managing a distributed environment. Does your telework program ensure employees who work away from the office have the competencies and resources they need to be successful? What are the eligibility requirements for employees who want to telework? If employees are not eligible to telework, do they know why?

Consider having shared work calendars so everyone knows who is working remotely or if they’re out of the office.

Keep your distributed workforce engaged. One way is through regularly scheduled on-campus events that allow distributed workers to network and participate in team-building activities.

Establish how your telework metrics will be measured and tracked, whether they’re emissions reduction, transit costs, real estate savings or productivity gains.

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