Telework at a turning point: Leadership opportunities and challenges

The U.S. government is no stranger to the idea of working from home. Since the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010, federal departments and agencies have enacted policies on employee eligibility, set telework participation goals and started measuring results. But for many, implementation has been challenging. Employees reported frustration with their limited ability to telework, and managers worried that work would not be done without their watchful eyes.

Enter COVID-19. The pandemic forced approximately three-quarters of federal employees to work remotely after their agencies established widespread approvals and practices. What had been studied for years became reality in weeks—for some, days! These temporary measures, initially intended to protect workers’ health, has yielded a surprising range of benefits. Numerous studies report improved efficiency, productivity, goal achievement and employee satisfaction.

A Federal News Network survey found 48% of respondents would be happy working remotely every day, while another 35% would telework three-to-four days a week, if possible. Agencies see the opportunity to expand the pool of federal workers beyond the expensive Washington Metro area. Deloitte has calculated that if all eligible government employees teleworked 50% of the time, it would save the federal government billions of dollars. A growing list of agencies, including the Defense Department and NASA, have announced that they will be making telework a normal part of employment moving forward.

Clearly, the rapid implementation of telework has many benefits. Its transition from crisis response to permanent situation, however, means leaders must adapt how they engage team members, design work processes, provide support, ensure productivity, and measure success.

Making the shift to widespread, long-term telework is an exercise in change leadership. From our years of research and practical application, we know that change-capable leaders draw on four proven change principles, which are the key to any major transformative effort.

Principle 1: Diverse Many + Select Few

For many federal agencies, telework has been limited to a “select few” individuals. The pandemic has accelerated widespread telework, so initial engagement of the “diverse many” has already happened faster and more easily than in many change situations. Engaging many more people means that change can be driven proactively at all levels and in all corners of the organization and can lead to ideas and innovation that are inaccessible to the “select few.”

The role of the leader today is to invite ongoing widespread, meaningful participation in identifying the challenges and solutions associated with making it the new normal. Start by articulating the big opportunities and benefits that sustainable, effective telework represents. This is the chance to fundamentally restructure your agency’s way of operating, introducing a level of flexibility that serves the needs and long-term success of every employee.

Principle 2: Have To + Want To

To transition telework into a sustainable ongoing practice, leaders must help individual contributors, as well as supervisors, make the shift from “having to” work remotely to “wanting to” do so. This means giving them a real choice and fully supporting a range of actions. First, be clear what level and type of telework is possible and optimal for each position. Expectations on both sides must be realistic, so nobody feels disadvantaged or blindsided.

Remember that employee attitudes will differ, depending on personal preferences and home circumstances. While many have embraced telework during the pandemic, others have found the experience lonely or chaotic. Leaders should set initial targets, then allow individuals some leeway to experiment and find the right balance. Successful change leaders work to understand the adoption curve for their organization and allow for early, middle and late adopters of a new practice. If your goal is to increase the level of telework in your department, encourage early adopters to share their stories, successes and learning.

Principle 3: Management + Leadership

Successfully supporting widespread telework requires both management and leadership. If you cannot see your employees, traditional methods of oversight and control are less effective. You still need good management practices—clear reporting and expectations, schedules, work plans, reviews—but redoubling reliance on them is not enough to engage an increasingly remote workforce.

Instead, leaders must motivate and inspire people’s best work by establishing a compelling vision for the department and the opportunity it now faces. It means creating a sense of urgency around the opportunity and the changes needed to seize it. Leaders should then invite broad participation and establish ways for people to contribute with their best ideas, take agile action and build on the learning. Augmenting “top down” management and leadership with “bottom up” innovation and decision making can be a challenge for traditionally hierarchical organizations. The leadership challenge is to foster the culture of purpose, trust and accountability that makes it possible.

Principle 4: Head + Heart

A real transformation must appeal to how people feel. Productivity and efficiency improvements may drive much of the interest in longer-term telework, but leaders also need to understand and build upon the ways remote or flexible work arrangements can increase employee satisfaction.

When the pandemic hit and organizations were forced to shift their working practices, we used our heads to keep people safe. As we emerge from the larger threat, and employees have demonstrated ability to work effectively via telework, leaders have the opportunity to follow their hearts in reinventing how work is done. What are the opportunities within your organization? Imagine the benefits of increased employee satisfaction or expanding the talent pool to encompass the entire country. How might this positively impact the experience of your customers?

Leaders must do more than track the numbers as telework becomes a new normal. Success depends on understanding how employees feel about the shift. Making time to engage in meaningful dialogue and connecting individual experiences to the larger mission will pay off tenfold. From virtual water cooler conversations to agency-wide forums, leaders need to prioritize the heart of teleworking alongside the head.

Martha Kesler, MSOD is Director of Federal Government Practice at strategy execution and change management firm Kotter. She can be reached at kesler@kotterinc.com.

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