Is telework on the way out?

The government is limiting itself when it moves away from telework. It makes it harder to recruit and retain talent, and it doesn't solve underlying problems.

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This column was originally published on Jeff Neal’s blog,, and was republished here with permission from the author.

“SSA ends telework program for operations employees, citing need to focus on customer service”

“Secretary’s ‘OneUSDA’ vision rings hollow to some in light of new telework policy”

“Dept. of Ed.’s decision to shrink telework options leaves employees questioning motives”

Those Federal News Network headlines might give federal workers and job applicants the idea that telework is going away in the federal government. At the very least, the administration’s messaging on telework is confusing and supports those suspicions. Except when it doesn’t. A federal worker who relies on telework has little assurance now that their telework will continue, nor does a job applicant who asks about telework to help make a decision regarding where they want to work.

Documents from the Office of Personnel Management are still supportive of telework. The most recent Status of Telework in the Federal Government report made the case for telework. It says:

“Data collected for this report and results from the 2017 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) and 2017 Federal Work-Life Survey provide evidence of the positive outcomes associated with telework and demonstrate the success of Federal agencies in utilizing telework participation to achieve results. Insights from the Federal Work-Life Survey highlight correlations between using telework to further mission-related outcome goals and the reported impact of these efforts on recruitment, retention, employee performance, and employee attitudes. Likewise, FEVS data show that individuals with access to telework are more engaged, more satisfied with work, and more likely to remain at their agencies than employees who are unable to telework.” They went on to say “Government can best deliver value to the American people through a high-performing, merit-based Federal workforce. When implemented as a strategic management tool, robust and well-practiced telework programs improve staff performance and engagement, and maximize organizational mission productivity, efficiency, and government stewardship. I commend Federal agencies for their commitment to leverage telework as part of a suite of key human capital management strategies that attract, develop, and retain a high performing, engaged, and diverse Federal workforce.”

Telework is not a universally acclaimed program. From the beginning, there have been agencies and individual managers who disliked the program and saw little benefit. Other agencies saw it as a means of providing more flexibility for the agency and its employees, an incentive for hiring, and a way to increase productivity. My own experience at the Defense Logistics Agency was that some managers, even one who considered himself to be very pro-employee, hated telework. There complaints centered on what they believed to be a lack of accountability when teleworking, difficulty in scheduling meetings, and a reduction in the amount of face-to-face interactions between employees. Proponents of telework made arguments that were much like the findings in OPM’s Status of Telework in the Federal Government report. They saw increased productivity, employee engagement, and retention.

So — which view is correct? The truth is that both are partially correct. There are organizations that see significant improvements in productivity, while others have measurable reductions. Some see more engaged employees, while others see some employees becoming more detached. Some find that meetings are harder to schedule (although they should not be), and that conference calls are less productive than face-to-face meetings. People on both sides find it difficult to quantify savings resulting from telework. One reason that the government has had challenges in demonstrating savings is that many agencies did not cut back on office space. Whether that decision was because it wasn’t practical due to long-term leases, or use of government-owned space or inability to get union agreement to use of shared spaces for employees, failure to show clear savings provides ammunition for opponents of telework.

My experience is that people often get what they want from telework and other workforce programs. Effective leaders who set high expectations when empowering their employees tend to get better results than those who assume their employees are not to be trusted when they are out of sight. Employees who are high producers in the office will typically be even more productive working at home. Employees who are not productive in the office and who go from cube to cube wasting time are more likely to engage in tele-goofing off than in telework.

That means an organization that wants to support telework can find ways to make it work. Those who do not want to support it can find reasons why it is a problem and should be curtailed or eliminated. A manager who cannot monitor an employee’s productivity at home is most likely not monitoring it very well in the office. Are those managers wandering from cubicle to cubicle trying to see if people are working? Or are they looking at outputs and measuring productive in more meaningful and effective ways? I believe good leaders can run good telework programs, while poor leaders will have telework programs that lead to productivity problems.

Eliminating telework once it is established creates a whole new set of problems. People make career decisions based upon working conditions. If someone accepts a job because they can telework full time, or multiple days per week, the agency is likely to lose that employee, or at least see a hit on productivity and engagement, when telework is taken away. There is also the issue of agencies that have made decisions on workspaces based on having a robust telework program. In recent years, many agencies have assumed a large number of teleworkers and reduced the number of offices and cubicles accordingly. That means some agencies may not have room for everyone to be in the office every day. So, in addition to being unhappy that they are missing out on telework, employees may find themselves squeezed into inadequate work space.

The federal government is not alone in having mixed reactions to telework. The private sector moved to telework in a big way years ago. Some companies did it for cost savings that result from having a smaller real estate footprint and less travel, and for recruiting and retention. The savings were real, and the ability to work from home has proven to be useful in recruiting and retention. It is also true that doing everything by phone or video conferencing is tough. It can make effective communications much harder, and it is not uncommon to hear the irritating keyboard clicking from those on calls who mistakenly think they can multitask and do their email while they are on a call.

A few large companies have moved away from telework in recent years. An article from the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) said “When companies decide to end their telecommuting programs, it’s an attempt to solve a much larger problem. It happens at companies where market performance is an issue or revenues are down, [where] there have already been layoffs, or where there’s a real problem with managerial practices. But it’s usually never about telecommuting in and of itself.”

The federal government is limiting itself when it moves away from telework. It makes it less likely they will be able to recruit and retain the talent they need, and it does not solve underlying management and cultural problems that may lead to some agencies having problems with telework. We would be far better off if the focus was on those issues and not on depriving employees of flexibility and agencies of the savings and productivity that can result from an effective telework program.

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