Teleworking, Silicon Valley Style

Managers have to trust employees for telework to work.

Telework has been expanding across the federal government, in large part thanks to the 2010 Telework Enhancement Act. But several studies, including the Office of Personnel Management’s most recent status report on telework, have noted that cultural barriers to it still exist, in large part because managers are reluctant to trust that their employees are working, not shirking, outside of the office.

This may be one of many areas where government could learn a lesson from Silicon Valley. I visited companies such as Facebook and design firm IDEO last week, and every employee I talked to spoke about how managers at these companies have an implicit trust in their employees, and that is a major factor not only in their job satisfaction but also in their drive to perform their jobs well.

At Facebook headquarters, for example, take a look at their video game spots, Zen garden, skateboarding benches and trendy lounges and cafeterias, and you may wonder how employees there get any work done. In addition, Facebook employees have no set hours, meaning they can come to work and leave when they want.

At IDEO, employees are free to work in whatever environment is best suited for performing the job they are doing that day – whether that is at home, in a coffee shop, in their trendy café or in one of their many open collaborative workspaces.

Yet when visiting both of these companies, I sensed this “pressure cooker” environment where the positive pressures of collaborating combined with the implicit trust that managers have for their employees is producing significant results.

“I think traditional companies would seize up when they saw our work space,” said Slater Tow, a spokesman for Facebook. “But slacking isn’t tolerated. Silicon Valley is full of overachievers, so you have all of these overachievers who all want to do the best work. And the sense of joy here comes from the work.”

While there’s no silver bullet when it comes to improving federal employee performance and improving the ability of federal managers to effectively manage their employees regardless of their location, the lessons from Silicon Valley are powerful.