The Real Issues with Telework

Here at Government Executive, we're big on telework. Part of the reason is the nature of our business: Reporters always have had to 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.

Here at Government Executive, we're big on telework. Part of the reason is the nature of our business: Reporters always have had to 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.

But such acceptance of telework isn't the case in many federal offices. At the Federal Managers Association's national convention yesterday, Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry once again highlighted the conventional explanation, saying the reason telework hasn't taken off more quickly in the federal sector is that too many managers aren't comfortable managing 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,” he said.
 
That may be true. Certainly there are some federal managers who don't trust that their employees are working unless they can see the evidence right in front of them. But focusing solely on the trust factor tends to ignore other more legitimate concerns managers may have about the  widespread adoption of telework.
 
First, there's the technology factor. It's hard enough to make sure people have the hardware and software they need in the office, and that it's in good 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 inherently less efficient than a face-to-face meeting. Videoconferencing is fantastic, but the technology isn't widespread at this point. 
 
Finally, there's an even more important factor: Creativity and innovation often are nurtured from working in close proximity with other people, so you can bounce ideas around and work in tightly integrated teams. Steve Jobs personally oversaw a design for a new headquarters for Pixar when he ran the company that forced employees to interact with one another throughout the workday. (Initially, he wanted only one bathroom in the whole facility to maximize foot traffic through its lobby.) He had the same philosophy at Apple.
 
None of this is to suggest that telework isn't a good idea. Indeed, traffic considerations in major metropolitan areas, environmental concerns, and the need to ensure continuity of operations in government make it all but imperative. But before we chalk up its relatively slow adoption simply to stuck-in-the-past supervisors, it would be helpful to consider these other factors, which amount to more than 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. 
 

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