Federal agencies increasingly are learning to operate with a distributed workforce, thanks to the 2010 Telework Enhancement Act and other efforts to expand technology and flexible work options for federal employees. So what are the keys to making those efforts successful?
Speaking at the Next Generation of Government Conference on Friday, WordPress Founder Matt Mullenweg said his company currently employs about 120 people spread out across 90 cities, meaning most employees work from their homes and do not have a colleague in the same geographic location. “The advantage is you can hire the best people in the world regardless of geography,” Mullenweg said. “The disadvantage is that there is something particularly powerful around brainstorming or how bandwidth collaboration works best when you are in person.”
In order to overcome that disadvantage, Mullenweg noted that the money the company has saved in office costs thanks to telework ends up getting spent thanks to travel costs. The company has created cross-functional teams of five to nine employees -- whether designers, engineers or business experts – to work on projects. “Everything within that team is self-contained,” he said. “By keeping the teams small, it enables them to meet up physically a couple times a year. And it costs about the same to send them to Houston as it does to Athens, Greece, so we let them go wherever they want.”
Jon Carson, director of public engagement at the White House, said many federal agencies are embracing flexible work schedules, deskless offices and more common work spaces. “That’s a place where the government is going to be a leader, and as a father of two young kids with a wife who has a job even busier than mine, I am all for as much as we can do on that front,” he said.
Perhaps most importantly, Mullenweg stressed to federal leaders to measure an employee’s actual output rather than whether they are in the office or putting in a certain number of hours of work. “How often we are at our desk doesn’t necessarily correlate and certainly doesn’t have an effect on how much we are working on and how good of a job we are doing,” he said. “A more holistic approach is probably one of the biggest sort of changes I see happening in work in general, not just in technology but across all fields, because the results matter.”
Meanwhile, Mullenweg stressed to young attendees to not always listen to what other people say when working to get a new technology, initiative or other idea off the ground. “When WordPress began, people told me that the market for blogging software was already saturated. There was no room for anything new,” he said. “And so that’s probably a good example that you shouldn’t always listen to people – especially when they tell you what cannot be done.”
Mullenweg added that he hopes the government increasingly will embrace WordPress and other open source technologies, noting that while WordPress powers about 16 percent of the top million websites, it powers only about .2 percent of government websites. One great example is ConsumerFinance.gov, he noted, which is doing well and running WordPress, he said.
“Just personally as a taxpayer, it breaks my heart when I read about some agency spending millions of dollars for a website, and I visit it and it’s not very good,” he said. “A lot of the benefits that the broader Web population has seen from WordPress, [government] can experience as well, and I hope along the way save a ton of money and make way better websites.”
Brittany Ballenstedt writes Nextgov's Wired Workplace blog, which delves into the issues facing employees who work in the federal information technology sector. Before joining Nextgov, Brittany covered federal pay and benefits issues as a staff correspondent for Government Executive and served as an associate editor for National Journal's Technology Daily. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Mansfield University and originally hails from Pennsylvania. She currently lives near Travis Air Force Base, Calif., where her husband is stationed.
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