Telecommuting works – just ask returning feds!

Somewhere around St Patrick’s Day, everything began changing for the federal workforce. As agencies responded to the novel coronavirus, telework restrictions were loosened and before we knew it federal workers were directed to use maximum telework. Then something amazing happened – they accomplished their mission. Let’s rephrase that – they continued to accomplish their mission. Wait, one more time. They accomplished their mission better than ever.

Now, as agencies begin a risky-at-best phased recall of our federal workers we have to ask ourselves – what’s the hurry? We know telework is common across most federal agencies (Department of Defense at one extreme and US Patent and Trademark on the other), so it’s no stranger. But things seemed to have changed with the pandemic. Agencies are depending on telework. A recent report quoted the American Federation of Government Employees’ President Ralph deJuliis as indicating that the Social Security Administration’s backlog of pending cases has fallen by 11% in a very short period of time. As we learn more about how agencies have responded to the pandemic, one can only imagine similar success in other agencies as well. And here’s why – telework works!

Teleworkers are more productive, period. Research consistently shows they find it easier to concentrate and focus. Plus, their work environment is more comfortable, less distracting, and more likely to instill a creative mindset than most office settings. A recent study at Stanford University found teleworkers 50% less likely to leave their jobs. Teleworkers also were less likely to use sick days, took less vacation time, and took fewer breaks during the workday. One 2019 study published in The Journal of Business and Psychology looked at 273 teleworkers and found increased levels of performance when working from home as opposed to the company office.

Research across multiple sectors has also proven that telework improves the emotional and physiological well-being of employees improves with telework options. This is coupled with lower stress levels and reduced burnout and has a direct link to employee satisfaction and innovation. Additionally, teleworkers don’t commute which saves time and money, and reduces stress.

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And let’s not forget the benefit to our planet. Beth Gardiner, writing for National Geographic, astutely pointed out that while pollution has made the COVID-19 crisis worse, the pandemic itself has resulted in the cleanest air we’ve had in decades. With more employees teleworking, we also enjoy a lower carbon footprint, less greenhouse emissions, and reduced fuel use. One study by Workplace Analytics found that we could enjoy the equivalent of taking the entire New York State workforce permanently off the road. All we have to do is telecommute where feasible.

So, if the data is there, if the science supports it, and if common sense rules, why do so many in the administration, and to be fair, some senior federal leaders, eschew the idea of telework? The most obvious answer to this question is that leaders do not trust their staff to be productive when they aren’t forced to endure 3 hours of daily commuting and confinement to a cubicle buried deep inside an unnamed building in Federal Triangle. Astounding.

Keep in mind these are often the same senior leaders who make a beeline directly to their corner offices without ever literally seeing the majority of the people that do their bidding. They just ‘feel’ like more is happening if they know (or think) the office is fully staffed. They don’t look in on individual employees, glance over their shoulder, or check in with them regularly to see if ‘they’re really busy.’

This lack of trust exacerbates other problems in the workplace. In an environment of doubt, employees are less apt to be innovative, or creative. They do not ask penetrating questions and challenge old practices. Let’s face it, no one in the public service ever has the chance to lean back at their desk and claim to be ‘all caught up.’ There are never enough resources. There is never enough staff. It is the nature of the public service. This means that the last great landscape for leaders to tap into is the heart and soul of the workforce. This begins and ends with trust.

A senior OMB official recently said to me, ‘the cat’s out of the bag! This telework thing works, there’s no going back.’

Let’s hope not. In the last 60 days our federal workforce has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that teleworking is a viable option that can improve mission accomplishment and reduce costs. Everyone heard that, right? Reduce costs? And keep in mind, they have done this while caring for family members, home-schooling their children, and dealing with the stress of a worldwide pandemic. Imagine how impactful their telework will be when those factors lessen.

Our federal workforce endures tremendous hardship as political winds blow from one direction to the next. Yet they focus intently on the nation’s business, the delivery of civilization and democracy to our citizens. They deserve the most cutting-edge technology, support and innovative leadership it can get. And let’s be human about this – they deserve lives of balance and quality. By embracing telework options, proven to work beyond doubt in the last 60 days, they will be better equipped to do what they do best.

Patrick Malone is the Director, Key Executive Leadership Programs in the School of Public Affairs at American University. He is a retired Navy Captain. He can be reached at pmalone@american.edu.