Expert’s proof shows telework works

It’s one thing to be controlled at work. Everyone has dealt with controlling bosses and co-workers. It’s another thing to be in control of your work and your life. One thing can make the difference. For what it is, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with longtime federal management professor Bob Tobias.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin  Bob, what can make the difference between being controlled and being in control?

Bob Tobias The single word answer, Tom, is telework. Telework. And interestingly enough, OPM just recently reported that 87% of those federal employees eligible to do telework last year actually participated in the program. And they also reported that more agencies were meeting their performance standards. And finally, they reported that employee attitudes, recruitment and retention also increased. Now, for me, I think there’s a direct link. I think that attitudes and retention and recruitment and performance increased because 87% of those eligibles were doing telework. What’s interesting to me is that whether you’re a GS-2 or you’re a member of the SES, when you have more control over your work, when you work, you perform more.

Tom Temin Work. Yes. I mean, that has been stated by a lot of teleworkers that kind of wryly say, well, gosh, I work many more hours because I’m not commuting, and I’ll just sit down at the computer in the evening and do things. But this is primarily for knowledge workers. Is it fair to the people? And there’s hundreds of thousands of federal employees that, by virtue of their location basis for the work, can’t telework?

Bob Tobias Well, it isn’t a question of fairness. I don’t think I think it’s a question of maximizing employee ability and willingness to do more work. And ironically, it was the fear of increased employee control and decreased managerial control that led managers over the years to deny requests for telework. And of course, that all turned around with COVID when everybody was forced to do telework. And what, of course, emerged is that when federal employees were given the authority to break up their workday to take care of a kid or a sick parent, they acted responsibly by returning to work and producing more trust emerged between managers and employees. And I think that’s a very potent elixir. There was no trust before COVID that employees would or could or would be interested in performing more work. But COVID proved that they could, and they would.

Tom Temin Right. So that required some reorientation on the part of managers to understand what it is they needed to measure. And it’s not time and attendance per se, but output and deadlines.

Bob Tobias Exactly. Exactly. And you know, the crucial ingredient to increase performance, as it turns out, I think, is choice. Because the recently released Federal Employee Viewpoint survey revealed that federal employees who chose teleworking at least three days a work scored 77.1 on the employee Engagement Index, and the Employee Engagement Index measures how engaged employees are and, as a result, how much more they produce. But what was interesting to me is those who chose in-person work and did not telework. They could have, but they chose not to. Scored 73.1, which is very, very close. So, if you have the choice to do in-person, you have the choice to do telework. You score high. But in contrast, those who couldn’t do telework because of their work or chose not to only scored 58.5. So, the reality is, those who are required to be in person and don’t have choice scored 58.5 on the Employee Engagement Index.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Bob Tobias, a retired professor in the Key Executive Leadership program at American University, former NTEU president before that. And I think it’s fair to say, too, that the Covid probably forced the issue in the sense that there were technological means that agencies quickly employed or deployed to be able to allow a lot more people to telework than could have from a technical standpoint. In fact, a lot of the tools didn’t exist five years earlier than that. And the ones that got employed nobody had heard of until Covid forced people to use them. And. So there’s a technology basis I feel that enabled this to some degree.

Bob Tobias Absolutely. The crisis, the telework crisis, forced innovation and creativity that didn’t exist before. And agencies purchase what they need to purchase and supported telework. So, the data is clear. But I’m going to say time. I don’t have any data to support what I’m about to say, but many of my students reported that telework changed my family structure. And what they said was that as a result of telework, both parents were able to participate in after school kid activity. Both parents took the responsibility of taking a kid to a doctor. Both parents could do volunteer work after work. And so, it wasn’t one or both parents who were going off early in the morning and coming back as ghosts in the evening after kids go to sleep. Both parents are actively and able to actively engage in parenting, which I think is a quite fundamental difference, particularly in large city areas where people commute an hour and a half or two hours to and from work.

Tom Temin Yeah, the commute is kind of a soul crushing experience, I think no matter where you are, unless you’re, you know, somebody that can have a helicopter or limousine pick you up. And I think even the federal bureaucracy at the managerial and appointed levels, there’s less and less of that going on than there used to be.

Bob Tobias Exactly.

Tom Temin Let me ask you a devil’s advocate question. I would trace the beginning of the erasure of the work and life boundary line to the advent of the BlackBerry, maybe the pager before that, but the BlackBerry and email meant people were on all the time, and the novelty kind of wore off after a few years. But what about the idea that when you say you’re mixing your work life and your personal life throughout the day, you still at some point have to resist that tendency to have that dynamic go on till midnight.

Bob Tobias Absolutely. Absolutely. And, you know, some people manage it well and some people don’t. But when you think about it and you think about the good news that has come about as a result of this technological revolution, as a result of the ability of more people to do telework and more productivity, there’s an ever increasing pressure from mayors and real estate developers who have empty buildings and restaurant tours, who want their boarded up restaurants reopened to have the federal government force employees to do more in-person work. And I think, Tom, that that should be resisted because as a taxpayer, I want talented individuals who are really inspired to do their work, who want to stay with the federal government and who deliver more public service today than they delivered yesterday. So, I think this telework program works. It’s proven to work, and it should be allowed to continue.

Tom Temin All right. Now, if Microsoft could just fix Teams so that everyone didn’t hate it and we’d really be in Clover.

Bob Tobias Exactly.

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