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Goal-setting, training called keys to telework

Agencies urged to view telework as an organizational tool, not a reward for high-performing employees.

Telework only will be successful and widely adopted across the government when agencies and managers establish clear goals for what the practice can do for them and what teleworkers are expected to achieve, witnesses told the House Oversight and Government Reform Federal Workforce Subcommittee at a Tuesday hearing.

"There are some goals that are not necessarily unique to an agency" that telework can help accomplish, testified Bernice Steinhardt, director of strategic issues for the Government Accountability Office. "Recruitment, retention and employee morale -- every agency has some efforts to attract a skilled workforce…. reducing congestion and energy use might be a governmentwide goal."

Most of things agencies need to focus on are "rather mundane, frankly," said Daniel Green, deputy associate director of the Center for Employee and Family Support Policy at the Office of Personnel Management. "It's things like managing to results, and that an employee understands that they're responsible for their work, and that doesn't change whether they're working remotely or working in the office."

Margaret Peterlin, deputy undersecretary of Commerce for intellectual property, said the Patent and Trademark Office's telework program has been successful because of the agency's high expectations and clear metrics -- such as number of cases processed -- for measuring employee performance.

"We trust our employees to do what is required of them, without micromanaging observation," Peterlin said. "The principles of communicating expectations and managing by results are, we believe, requisites for a functional telework program."

Stanley Kaczmarczyk, principal deputy associate administrator in the Office of Governmentwide Policy at the General Services Administration, said GSA helps keep standards for teleworkers high and enhances information security at the same time by requiring all employees to complete the same technology training.

"Everyone gets annual IT training," Kaczmarczyk said. "There are technological solutions, like virtual private networks, so you can work from home and retain the same security as you can in the office. The policies are in place, the technology is there to support it, and the issue is the same if you're working from the office as if you're working from another location."

Peterlin said having managers and employees undergo training together helps ensure that expectations are clear on every level.

"Our managers and our employees participate in the telework training program, and that gives us additional confidence," she said.

Steinhardt said she thought one challenge in promoting telework as part of a performance culture was the perception that it was a reward for employees rather than a means of increasing efficiency.

"Everyone in an organization needs to understand that they're working toward something," Steinhardt said. "Telework shouldn't be viewed as an employee reward. It should be regarded as a tool to achieve an organizational goal. Managers need to be held accountable for what the organization is going to try to accomplish through telework."

Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., said he thought that performance management issues should not be a barrier to telework.

"If managing to results is done properly, that is easily overcome as an objection," he said.

Sarbanes and subcommittee chair Danny Davis, D-Ill., plan to introduce legislation requiring every agency to develop a telework policy. Sarbanes attached a similar amendment to Energy legislation now pending in the Senate.

Other barriers are more systematic than cultural. OPM's Green said that between 2005 and 2006, the number of federal employees who agencies reported as teleworking fell by almost 8,000, due in part to problems in measuring exactly who is working away from the office.

"Agencies are developing internal systems to improve their data collection," Green told the panel. "OPM has continued to refine the yearly survey tool, based on agency feedback and our own observations about the data…. We have also been working with payroll service providers as they routinely update their systems to maximize the use of the time and attendance systems to track telework."

Steinhardt said telework adoption varies across agencies in part because they have differing definitions of which workers are eligible.

"Every agency sets its own programs and policies to local circumstances, but there shouldn't be widely disparate terms for basic things like eligibility," she said.

But even if technical barriers were resolved, she said, the question of performance management would remain critical.

"Frustration is likely to continue until agencies bring a more results-oriented approach to managing their telework programs," she said. "Everyone is looking to telework to yield a whole variety of benefits. Agencies are looking to telework to recruit and retain a skilled workforce, to ease traffic congestion, to provide for continuity of operations. But all of these aspirations have never been translated into program goals. No one is managing to them. No one is setting targets for them."