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OPM’s Telework Policy for Parents Is An Exercise in Distrust

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I’ve been working from home exclusively for the past 6 years. I say it all the time, not really in jest, that I could never work in an office again. I just can’t wear real pants anymore.

Like most work-from-home parents, I still have traditional office hours and great childcare. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t times when worlds collide and my children barge into my office during a video call.

As someone who worked for the Department of the Army and successfully negotiated a one-day-a-week approved telework situation, recently released OPM guidance on telework and dependent care is ushering in a flashback. Picture a group of women sitting in a conference room, being lectured by HR about why we could not have our children at home with us while we worked (I didn’t even have kids at this point, but given the fact that I have a uterus, it was clearly a risk).

This was Washington, D.C., mind you. And anyone who was working at the Pentagon who had kids was already shelling out at least $1,000 a month for the privilege of quality childcare (multiply that for multiple children). My guess is parents weren’t going to pull their children out of daycare one day each week while they worked from home. And since telework days were pre-arranged, static work days, the chance of your telework day falling on the same day your child is sick is not the kind of karma I have ever experienced as a parent.

But old habits die hard, it seems, and Uncle Sam is still threatening parents—don’t dare consider the possibility of interacting with your children while working from home. Unless it’s on your lunch break. And only if it’s pre-approved by your manager. The new OPM guidance goes so far as to suggest that an employee who sees their dependents during the lunch hour should have approval from their supervisor. Which makes me wonder if I need to get permission before the next time I go grab a sandwich with a colleague? 

When Guidance Goes Too Far

There are elements of the telework policy that seem genuinely focused on making sure dependent care and telework can go hand-in-hand. But reading "scenarios" like this is where my eye-rolling reaches maximum level:

Scenario: Mason’s son Mahlon was born several months ago. He and his wife have a nanny caring for Mahlon at home each day. Mason discussed with his supervisor the fact that he has a home office on the third floor, and that the nanny cares for the baby on the first and second floors. So his supervisor has approved Mason to telework on Tuesdays. As a sleep deprived young parent, Mason appreciates the extra sleep he can get on Tuesdays when he is not commuting, and also enjoys the extra time he has to decompress after work and prepare a nice dinner for the family on Tuesday evenings.

There’s an implication here that there needs to be complete separation. Even with a nanny, I couldn’t separate myself from my kids by an entire floor—not in my 1,200 square foot Arlington, Va., ranch home. (Maybe other D.C. workers can relate).

In my five years as a work-from-home parent I have:

  • Been trying to speak during a company meeting and had the 5-month-old I was holding start to cry (it turns out no matter how much you ‘Lean In’ you still can’t breastfeed on a conference call without risks).
  • Had a 2-year old walk in during a video call and ask me to wipe his bottom.
  • Had a 5-year-old run into my office and play hide and seek under my desk during a video call.

And about 10 other situations even more embarrassing and likely to get me reprimanded by a government supervisor. And guess who was present for each of those situations? My very well paid and highly competent nanny. And while the logical response would be ‘Buy a door lock and put down your baby during conference calls for goodness sakes!’ even the most careful teleworker is going to have a less than ideal situation arise during the course of a few months or years. Is management going to fall back on the competence of their employees at those times, or a policy that would likely lead to ending telework completely?

Will Work for Wine

I’ve generated some of my best ideas over a glass of red wine during an evening conversation with my husband, without any third-party childcare present. Like most professionals, I also always log back in each evening after the kids go to bed and clean up shop (most of my friends working 9-5 in an office do the same thing).

Does the government want to start reimbursing for those non-business hours? Do they want to start welcoming the kind of creativity and competitive advantage a real work-from-home situation can offer? The government has had a tricky relationship with both telework and results oriented work environments. And it’s true that many government jobs cannot be done from home at all (ask my husband, he works in a SCIF).

But when the guidance from OPM on telework focuses on 10 pages of dependent care caveats, Uncle Sam is doing it wrong. And the “real life” scenarios only make it worse. I guarantee there is some government manager out there who’s going to use the Mason and Mahlon example to demonstrate why a government worker living in an apartment can’t be allowed to telework while having a relative watch the baby.

Trust Is Essential

Successful telework does require clearly articulated policy. But it requires one thing even more important—trust. Trust is the most critical element of telework (Just ask this PhD who has studied the topic extensively). Ten-page policies won’t make a great telework program. They’ll fill up months of meetings at OPM and scare most workers out of trying (maybe that’s why only about 40 percent of those eligible to telework in government even attempt it), and that’s about it.

We are currently in the midst of one of the most competitive cleared hiring markets I have seen in my 10 years working in and around government. And I’m hearing from more and more recruiters that telework and flexible schedules are one of the benefits they’re successfully using to attract talent. If government wants to compete, they’ll need to make sure their policies make it easier to telework—not harder.

Lindy Kyzer is the editor of ClearanceJobs.com and a former Defense Department employee.

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