The subject of teleworking, especially in the federal government is definitely controversial. It’s similar to the way many people feel about certain foods, like liver, or Hawaiian pizza — or a Hawaiian pizza with liver!
As the Marmite slogan goes, you either love it or hate it.
So is the Trump administration at war with the career civil service and is teleworking one of its targets? Or are moves to bring more people back to the office simply common sense and good for taxpayers?
A growing number of federal agencies — Social Security Administration, Agriculture Department, Department of Health and Human Services, and Education Department — are ending or drastically downsizing the number of employees allowed to telework and the number of days working from home. SSA is taking 11,000-12,000 people off teleworking, saying they can better serve clients from the office than from their home offices. But that still leaves about 415,000 civil servants who are working from home, for now, anyhow.
So is teleworking a good thing, and what’s behind the efforts to reduce or eliminate it?
Some feds see it as a Trump administration effort to sock it to the bureaucracy and federal unions, even though outside the Postal Service the vast majority of civil servants do not belong to unions. Backers of the changes believe that many teleworkers do everything — babysitting, TV watching, doctors appointments, sleeping — but actually work from home.
A lot of people in government have stories proving both the value and downside of teleworking. Many employees whose jobs or agencies don’t allow them to telework, ever, have doubts about the value of the practice to the taxpayers.
Many, probably most people who are teleworking say it’s a win-win. They say they are more productive, happier and helping other commuters and the climate by staying out of the bumper-to-bumper morning and afternoon/evening rush hours. And they are ready to go when there is an emergency, or if there is a local or national shutdown because weather. Teleworkers, they say, carry on doing their jobs.
In the middle of the telework-is-good, telework-is-silly argument are people, in and out of government, who believe teleworking is as good or bad as the individual who is allowed to work from home. That’s a way to introduce this comment from a USDA employee who says teleworking stands or falls on the work ethic of each involved employee:
“I have been teleworking six or seven days a pay period for almost eight years. Most of my federal colleagues telework as well. I am in constant contact with my team whether in the USDA office or my home office. I think the most important aspect of telework is that the agency provides staff the tools to do the job from their telework location. For example, we have email, conference bridges, secure VPNs, and an instant messenger program (Skype for Business) with video and screen sharing capability, so when a member of my team would reach out for help we could still talk face to face and I can see their computer screen on mine. This actually has the benefit of being easier to see than when helping in the USDA office because I get to see their screen on mine instead of having to lean over their shoulder in the office. We have a similar tool called Cisco Jabber that lets us connect to the video conference systems in the conference rooms. This lets us meet face to face with everyone in that conference room and connected via Jabber.
“Meetings occur regularly using these tools with some staff in the buildings and some connecting in by audio or video from their telework location, and all documents, training materials, etc., are shared across the network connections so everyone can see and review.
“Another benefit of telework is there are fewer interruptions. While in the office, there are so many times I am stopped in the aisle or visited at my desk by co-workers that are not on my team that there are certain complex tasks and projects I work on only when working in my home office because they are easier to tackle when there are fewer interruptions. These co-workers will still reach out with questions when I’m at home and they can’t find the answer within their team but in the office they frequently ask me first just because I’m more accessible than their tech lead or section chief.
“The servers and applications we work on are all located somewhere else — USDA requires us to use DISC — so even when in the office we are not in the same location as the applications and servers we work with. [With] efforts to move applications to the ‘cloud,’ this will become the norm at all federal agencies. Access to the servers requires a secure VPN connection, so even our network access is the same no matter if we are in the main office or our home office.
“With the Farm Production and Conservation (FPAC) reorganization, every FPAC Business Center supervisor now has staff in two or more locations. For example, my team has staff in Washington, D.C., Kansas City, Portland, and Fort Collins. Because staff were already comfortable communicating and collaborating with staff in their telework locations, the new need of collaborating with team members and supervisor half or all the way across the country was not a challenge. With the reorg the customers we serve are now frequently elsewhere as well.
“It seems odd to me for the USDA leadership to limit telework to ‘increase face-to-face interactions,’ then reorganize so that team members, supervisors, and customers are halfway across the country. It also seemed hypocritical for the secretary to tell farmers he ‘looked forward to a day when they could do everything from the cab of their combine’ a week after the policy change made employees be in the office most days.
“At a time when many private sector companies are increasing telework and even whole companies are going 100% remote, with no shortage of studies that show remote workers are more productive, the federal government is heading in the opposite direction. With an IT workforce that is already facing staffing issues, how attractive is federal employment going to be to job seekers in that regard? I know several employees that left due to last year’s USDA telework policy change and others will likely follow once the rest of us are no longer protected by a union agreement from that change.
“I haven’t even mentioned the financial and work-life balance benefits. With six days a month in the office and church on Sundays, my budget for dress clothes is minimal. I recently renewed my auto insurance and learned my annual mileage is only 13% of the average for workers my age. This saves on gas, insurance and vehicle wear and tear. Because I only have to commute one or two days a week I can get by with an older vehicle which saves vehicle cost and personal property taxes. With no commute on my work-from-home days I am available to my wife, kids, non-work commitments and hobbies an extra two hours each of those days.
“If USDA followed the example of companies that are switching everyone at certain locations to 100% remote to cut back on facility costs, they would save $6 million per year by not having to lease the building I go to for those days in the office. Multiply that by whatever portion they could shutter of the hundreds of USDA facilities and the potential agency savings is huge.
“In your article you mentioned stories about teleworking colleagues that binge-watched TV and the SSA retiree that had employees say it’s like a day off. Changing a person’s work location is not going to change their work ethic. What is wrong in those examples is probably the employee’s work ethic, not their location. I have heard secondhand about issues with certain USDA staff when they were ‘working’ from home and can confirm the drive of these individuals to support the mission is no better when they are in the office.
“As long as the agency provides employees the tools to work remotely, the ones with a decent work ethic will be more productive teleworking if their position is a good fit for it. But an employee that is allowed to be nonproductive at the office will try to do the same when teleworking. Instead of limiting or removing telework from everyone, leadership should focus on the abusers. At USDA there are very specific do’s and don’ts that are part of each employee’s telework agreement and the people not living up to the agreement should lose the privilege, not everyone. But when you have staff that are allowed to get away with ‘I don’t do meetings’ at the office, their management will let them get away with that same nonproductive attitude at home.
“If USDA leadership and leadership of other agencies really want to fix the productivity issues occurring with these people at home, the right way to do it would be to hold those staff and their management accountable for the lack of action of those individual employees, not punish everyone in the department by limiting or removing telework. Thank you.”
Dueling has long been abandoned around the world as a form of settling conflicts, both by legislation and by changing customs. But as late as 1971 two Uruguayan politicians, then-Interior Minister Danilo Sena and the other former Minister of Industry and Labor Enrique Erro, dueled with pistols. Both emerged unscathed. This was despite the fact that dueling had been outlawed in the country since 1920. Erro had called Sena “a coward” in public, and a three-man court of honor ruled there was sufficient cause for a duel.