Observer: Managers have reason to be wary of telework

Editor's note: This is the second of four perspectives on telework in the federal government that will appear in the Sept. 1 issue of Government Executive Magazine.


Bill Bransford
General Counsel
Senior Executives Association

With the passage of legislation in both the House and Senate, telework is quickly moving from concept to reality in the federal government. The challenge now becomes implementing telework policies while ensuring that agency operations and performance remain high and providing clear guidance and expectations. Federal managers and executives will be on the front lines of getting this done effectively.

Managers and executives are often cited as a barrier to telework. It is not a dislike of the program that causes supervisors to be skeptical, but rather the difficulties in ensuring that employees follow their telework policies correctly and in assessing productivity when an employee works from home. Supervisors also have encountered employees who are inaccessible by phone to customers while working at home, and some who have resisted coming in for a necessary meeting because it was called on their scheduled telework day. It is these experiences and the sense of entitlement that seems to occur among some employees who telework that have led to supervisors' resistance to putting a telework program in place.

While the legislation moving through Congress generally addresses these challenges, the devil is in the details. The regulations to implement a governmentwide telework policy will have to ensure that programs are structured to give managers and executives the tools they need to effectively oversee employees who work remotely.

Among this guidance, OPM should ensure clear and measurable criteria on how to develop performance metrics for telework and communicate them to both supervisors and employees. Agencies should provide training on telework programs to everyone involved in such arrangements. Training for supervisors should include communicating performance expectations to employees and implementing flexible work arrangements through collective bargaining agreements. Agencies should outline clear expectations for teleworking employees, such as the need to be available by phone and e-mail during work hours, make occasional unexpected trips to the office to attend meetings, work on a task force if required, or be present at a specific location if it's essential to the agency's mission.

Agencies should make appropriate equipment, including computers, printers and BlackBerrys, available to employees working remotely and make sure they know how to use and service those tools from a remote location.

Managers and executives must be prepared not only to implement these new policies, but also to build in mechanisms that will allow telework programs to succeed. This takes work. OPM and Congress must provide supervisors with the tools and flexibilities to manage their workforce. And supervisors will have to use the best leadership and oversight skills to accurately assess productivity and prevent telework from becoming an intractable and inefficient employee entitlement that actually reduces government effectiveness.

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