The Telework Gap

By Kaylan Billingsley

July 1, 2013

It seems there is a telework generation gap in government.

As technology makes it easier to remotely connect with others, many businesses and federal agencies have made the move to allow employees to telework. Employers are implementing telework for variety of reasons. Many cite the need to address low morale and stress, while others focus on environmental issues and cost cutting. Whatever the reason, telework has become more prevalent, which has sparked a debate about whether it makes employees more or less productive than traditional office operations.

The question about the productivity of telework is of particular importance to the federal government, which is already plagued by its reputation for red tape and ineffectiveness. Now with deep budget cuts being made at agencies, telework is being explored even further for government operations.

According to an Office of Personnel Management report, among a workforce of 2 million federal employees, 684,589 were eligible for telework by September 2012, and 168,558 employees were participating in telework programs. Of these employees, 46,000 were teleworking three or more times a week. In a survey of 166 young federal employees by the professional group Young Government Leaders, 132 were allowed to telework and 114 telework at least on occasion—86 percent of those eligible.

What does this mean for productivity? 

Some have criticized Marissa Mayer, chief executive officer at Yahoo!, for banning telework at the company, citing the unstoppable force of technology and the benefits that telework provides. In the Young Government Leaders survey, 44 percent of respondents said teleworking improved their productivity while 5 percent said it decreased their productivity. The rest said it had no impact. 

Respondents also were asked what they thought their manager’s perception of telework was. About 25 percent said their managers thought it increased productivity, and 21 percent said their bosses believed it decreased productivity. So, while the majority of workers believe teleworking is just as effective, if not more so, than regular office work, there is still some reservation among managers.

This disconnect could be due to gaps in age and technological familiarity, which can be a source of distrust of technology among managers. Another reason could be that managers aren’t communicating their support and trust in employees who telework. A third reason could be that many government managers have yet to set appropriate and effective ways to measure performance of teleworkers. It may be up to those employees to communicate to their bosses that their performance has not diminished and make a conscious effort to demonstrate their productivity.

The same methods used to measure in-office performance might not be as useful when evaluating employees’ work from home. Thinking carefully about how to manage and communicate with employees who telework is critical for the arrangement to benefit the employee and the agency.

Kaylan Billingsley is a research fellow at Young Government Leaders, a nonprofit professional
organization for federal, state and local employees.

By Kaylan Billingsley

July 1, 2013