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Is Telework Really Benefitting Your Agency?

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The Washington Post, citing a Government Accountability Office report, recently published an article entitled More Feds are Working from Home. But no one has figured out whether that’s really a good thing.

The thrust of the report and the article is that while roughly 267,000 Federal employees are now working at home, according to GAO, “Agencies continue to face challenges in quantifying the impact of telework, identifying costs incurred, and translating benefits into quantifiable cost savings.”

Some of the purported advantages of telework are that it will “improve recruitment/retention, increased productivity, and improved work/life balance.” It can also save money and energy by reducing the need for office space, reduce the number of employee absences, provide greater flexibility on snow days and during emergencies, limit greenhouse emissions, etc. However, according to GAO, “Without data on net benefits including cost savings associated with telework, agencies have incomplete information to determine the value of telework through assessing whether the benefits being achieved outweigh the costs incurred.”

Telework is not a magic bullet and it does have its costs and challenges. For example, there are costs to set up work-at-home arrangements—personnel costs, training needs, etc.  Also, telework may cause a decline in teamwork since people are no longer working closely together on a day-to-day basis. It may become harder to develop people as they spend less time with mentors, and supervisors may find they have lost some important flexibility since it is not as easy to turn to people who are not in the office.

According to GAO:

“The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) collects data on telework via its annual data call and consults with the Chief Human Capital Officers (CHCO) Council about its annual telework report to Congress. However, GAO found substantial declines in agency reporting of telework cost savings to OPM . . . The Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 requires an annual assessment of agencies in meeting established outcome goals. Assessments that include information on benefits, net costs savings, and costs can help decision makers in determining the overall effects of their telework programs and the progress achieved."

I think GAO is absolutely correct that more information is needed in order to measure the success of the program.

How Do You Measure Success?

First and foremost, the goal of telework should be to improve organizational performance. Comparing both group and individual performance from year to year will be the first indication as to whether telework is working.

I believe the best way to do this is through a balanced scorecard that measures productivity/unit cost, quality, timeliness, customer satisfaction and employee development/satisfaction. One way to do this is to weight performance in each area on a scale of 100—in other words, productivity/unit cost might receive a weight of 20 percent, quality 30 percent, timeliness 15 percent, etc. You then track performance in each area relative to goals and then multiply it by its weight. That is, if you only have one quality goal and your performance is 90 percent of that goal, you multiply the maximum number of points available (let’s say 30 percent) by 90 percent, which gives you 21 points. You then take the same approach for all of your other performance measures, total up the individual scores and that gives you one number that represents your overall performance.

To truly assess the effectiveness of the program, you need to also look at other measures in relation to overall performance. I suggest that agencies engaged in telework develop an overall telework balanced scorecard. Better yet, the government should develop one overall balanced scorecard framework for telework that can be used by every agency. Then the federal government will be able compare apples to apples across agencies.

Such a scorecard might have the following components, all of which would then be weighted on a scale of 100 in the same way that I just described how you might measure performance:

  • Overall performance (this component would contain some of the key issues that telework is supposed to address—productivity, employee satisfaction, etc.).

  • Rent/energy costs for the affected areas. Every agency should have this information.

  • Leave used (especially sick leave and perhaps unscheduled leave—this information could be captured from your payroll records).

  • Commuting costs/transit subsidies. Commuting costs would be captured by an employee survey. Transit subsidy information should be available from Payroll.

  • Turnover rates. This information would be available from Human Resources.

  • Quality of new candidates. This could be tracked by a survey of selecting officials and/or by comparing the scores of best qualified candidates from past years.

Understanding Value

When analyzing the data, a key is to understand the value that is created as the organization either transitions to telework or keeps the traditional model. This means the organization, the team and the employees within the team should all be aware of this information, as everyone will begin to look at telework and all other aspects of the operation as if they were co-owners. If the organization, team, and individual knew the value they created they could compare the value created while working in the office to working at home and then make sound business decisions and adjustments if necessary.

A good description of a value creation model and how it should be applied can be found in Chapter Four of the book A Team of Leaders: Empowering Every Member to Take Ownership, Demonstrate Initiative, and Deliver Results.

If every agency were to routinely collect the above data in the format I just described, they would have the information needed to properly manage and assess their telework programs. It would also make it much easier for OPM to collect the data they require under the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 and 1) be able to assist agencies in setting goals and measuring benefits, and 2) be able to properly report to Congress regarding the success of the program.

Stewart Liff is an HRM, visual performance management and team development expert. He is the President and CEO of Stewart Liff & Associates, Inc. He is the author or co-author of seven books, including Managing Government Employees and A Team of Leaders. He can be reached at stew@stewartliff.com.

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