Here at Government Executive, we’re big on telework. Part of the reason is the nature of our business: By necessity, reporters must be out and about attending events and conducting interviews, so even in the pre-Internet Age, the editors who managed them had to get comfortable with the notion that the employees they supervised weren’t always going to be in the office. And in the Internet Age, it turns out the editors often can work remotely too.
These days, many federal offices are getting into telework as well. In March, General Services Administration chief Martha Johnson declared her agency’s participation in this year’s Telework Week a “roaring success.” About 6,500 employees teleworked at least one day during the week, up from 3,200 last year.
But such enthusiasm for telework isn’t always the case at other federal offices. Numerous studies have documented the slow adoption of telework in the federal sector. The week after Johnson made her remarks, Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry addressed the issue at the Federal Managers Association’s national convention. He highlighted the long-standing conventional wisdom about why telework hasn’t taken government by storm: too many managers
simply aren’t comfortable supervising people who aren’t right in front of them.
“Many feel there is a risk because with certain employees, you can’t just swing by and see them working,” Berry said.
That may be true. Certainly there are some managers who don’t trust that their employees are actually doing their jobs unless they can see the evidence with their own eyes. But focusing solely on the trust factor tends to ignore other more legitimate concerns managers may have about expanding telework.
First, there’s the technology issue. It’s hard enough to make sure people have the hardware and software they need in the office, and that it’s in working order. The challenge is compounded when people aren’t in the same location. Then there’s communication. Anyone who’s ever been on a conference call knows they are less efficient and harder to manage than face-to-face meetings. Videoconferencing is fantastic, but the technology isn’t widespread at this point. And let’s face it, some jobs (particularly those that are process-oriented) lend themselves to telework more readily than others. As Aliya Sternstein points out in her story this month, agencies are grappling with security standards for remote workers who handle classified information.
Finally, there’s an even more important factor: Creativity and innovation often are nurtured from working in proximity with other people so you can bounce ideas around in tightly integrated teams. When he ran Pixar, Steve Jobs personally oversaw the design of a new headquarters that forced employees to interact with one another throughout the workday. He had a similar philosophy about encouraging interaction at Apple. In this era of ever-tightening agency budgets, isn’t building high-performing teams more important than ever?
That’s not to suggest telework ought to be off-limits. Indeed, traffic considerations in metropolitan areas, environmental concerns and the need to ensure continuity of operations in government make it all but imperative. And, of course, there’s a budget case for it too: Some agencies are achieving major savings in real estate costs by cutting down on the office space they lease or rent through telework.
But before we chalk up telework’s relatively slow adoption simply to stuck-in-the-past supervisors, it would be helpful to consider the other factors that have limited its growth. And they add up to more than just the grumblings of retrograde managers who lack the imagination to figure out how to oversee the work of people who aren’t right under their noses.