Telework brings out underlying trust issues in federal workforce

Trust boils down to workers demonstrating a sense of reliability and consistency. With reliability and consistency, "people begin to depend on each other to get...

By Dena Levitz
Federal News Radio

The ongoing debate over whether to allow federal employees to work remotely is, at the core, a struggle over trust. In explaining factors that make for trusting work environments, Michael Gelles, a director in consulting at Deloitte, says the telework phenomenon is a perfect illustration of challenges currently faced by the federal government and in the workforce, when it comes to interpersonal dynamics.

For an individual worker, a flexible telework arrangement brings the benefit of avoiding stress-filled commutes and establishing a healthier work-life balance. Meanwhile, for the employer, having teleworking employees can cut bottom-line costs because fewer staff are reporting to a physical location.

“You would think it would be a no-brainer,” Gelles says, “but it really becomes more than that.”

Many supervisors are uncomfortable with a teleworking arrangement purely “because of the trust issue,” said Gelles in an interview on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp. The interview is part of Federal News Radio’s special report, Trust Redefined: Reconnecting Government and Its Employees. “If I don’t see you and see what you’re doing, do I feel confident that you’re exercising the duties you’re supposed to exercise during an 8-hour work day?” he questions.

Gelles, also the former chief psychologist of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, said for employees to persuade their bosses that they can handle this level of freedom, it’s critical to demonstrate a high level of productivity – productivity that even exceeds what would be achieved from within a traditional office setup. Proving the value can translate to other benefits as well.

“It (telework) may also lead to greater satisfaction … and this may lead to higher morale, greater thinking, creativity, innovation,” he says. “I’m more motivated to do more because I have more time and I have a greater sense of connectivity to the workplace because I feel it’s a two-way street.”

Without trust, however, a workforce can be doomed, in Gelles’ opinion, since it is such a key ingredient. Trust, as he defines it, boils down to staff demonstrating a sense of reliability and consistency. With reliability and consistency, “people begin to depend on each other to get things done in the workplace.”

That sweet spot of trust comes into play when all employees are committed to the work being done and to the larger collaborative mission, according to Gelles. Additionally there must be a sense that everyone’s prepared to follow rules and policies without cutting corners.

If trust is broken along the way, theoretically, it can be repaired if the environment is such that individuals are given second chances.

In actuality, what plays out more often, though is “people are very shy to trust again,” he says, especially if one person’s indiscretion might harm others’ reputations.

How, though, can agencies try to determine whether a potential employee will possess these qualities early on before trust has an opportunity to be broken?

Criminal and financial background checks are a start. However, as federal agencies screen applicants, Gelles says, they could be more vigilant.

“I don’t think we really do the kind of employment checks we should be doing,” he says.

Examining criminal activity can ward off some offenders. Same with financial checks. Absent from vetting, at present, is a dedicated look at applicants’ past job performance.

Privacy laws create understandable limitations. Yet Gelles suggests a greater effort to study patterns of behavior in a worker’s prior jobs. Someone who, in the past, has been inconsistent when turning in assignments, who has had a sense of entitlement with bosses or an inability to respond to constructive criticism should stand out as a red flag. Paying attention to such characteristics can prevent a distrustful worker from entering the fray in the first place.

Also, keep in mind, the more trust the specific position requires, the greater the vetting and probing into past behavior should be, Gelles suggests. Background checks, then, are not necessarily one size fits all.

“Vetting is not just vetting is not just vetting,” he says.

How someone presents themselves on paper or in an interview and whether that translates into action in real life is the fundamental determination of whether to instill trust.

“Essentially, we want workers to feel a sense of trust,” he says. “That trust can lead to a very productive workforce.”


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