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Put the telework debate to rest by focusing on productivity

COMMENTARY | Civil servants say telework improves productivity, but Congress wants data to prove it. Here’s one way OMB can reconcile the differences.

When it comes to teleworking, the Office of Management and Budget and federal agency leaders may feel stuck between a rock and a hard place. That’s because they are getting conflicting feedback from various stakeholders. 

OMB has the unenviable task of trying to balance the needs of civil servants and evolving expectations of the broader American workforce – with requirements set forth by the Biden administration and lawmakers. Reconciling the differences is challenging. 

Same old debate, different time and cultural norms

Telework is not a new concept for the federal government. The first federal agency to experiment with telework was in 1934. Decades later, in the 1970s, the Office of Personnel Management conducted a pilot test with five different agencies. The U.S. Army and the National Institutes of Health also tested telework in the 1980s.

These pilot programs showed telework promised “favorable results” in terms of productivity. However, all the projects were ended, over fears the program would be abused – a cultural perspective that was seemingly at odds with the test data. 

It wouldn’t be until 2010, when high-speed internet connectivity helped usher in the Telework Enhancement Act, which codified remote work authorization into law for civil servants. Despite the authorization, the broad use of telework was tempered until the global pandemic of 2020. In our observation, that was the tipping point for cultural acceptance. 

Identifying stakeholders needs today

Despite the widespread use of telework today, valid skepticism remains. It’s a remarkable change from the generations that spent their careers in an office. That change has to be managed and that starts by understanding the perspectives of all stakeholders involved.

Below is a high-level summary of the major sticking points of each stakeholder group:

  • Civil servants. More than half of the federal workforce works remotely, according to the 2023 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. Many civil servants report being more productive when they are free from office distractions. An even more recent poll of 6,300 civil servants found 67% say they get more done when permitted to telework. Just about 8% said the same of in-office. About 82% of workers polled indicated they felt the recent push to get civil servants back to the office was “politically motivated.”
  • Congress. Some Members of Congress have questioned the efficiency of working from home – and they want to see data that proves it’s viable. “No one says we’re totally opposed to telework,” House Oversight and Accountability Committee Chair James Comer, R-Ky., said in a hearing with Jason Miller, a deputy director with the OMB. “We just want to see data that shows it’s more efficient, and I don’t think you all have that data.”
  • Administration. Last year OMB started petitioning federal agencies to bring employees back to the office for at least 50% of the time. This was met with stiff resistance from the unions. These concerns are worth noting because OMB needs to attract and retain talent. For example, the government is currently trying to hire some 500 employees to work on artificial intelligence from the private sector. The federal government cannot compete with private sector pay scales, so it’s already at a disadvantage. Add to it, the commute in Washington, DC consistently ranks as among the worst in the nation, which makes attracting talent the government desperately needs all the more challenging. 

When we compare the historical debate over telework with the one that’s unfolding now, many of the arguments for and against telework are the same: the debate centers on productivity but the arguments are largely based on cultural experience. 

Focus policy, process and data on an outcome

Those accustomed to the office are inclined to believe the office is the only answer. Digital natives, however, point to the pandemic and history of successful pilot programs. 

It’s here that we get back to that difficult position. How can OMB reconcile these views? I believe there are three major steps:

1. Define the policy. 

OMB has said it wants federal employees to spend 50% of their time in the office – and they are about 80% of the way toward reaching that goal. Yet it’s also suggested agencies can have the flexibility to modify things to meet their needs. This adds a degree of ambiguity to the policy, which is largely based on an abstract goal of time spent in a given location, rather than a business outcome. 

This shows up in the survey we alluded to previously. Fifty-six percent of civil servants polled do not think the purpose behind the policy is clear. That’s important because employee buy-in isn’t something that can be legislated, so it’s worthwhile spending some time listening to civil servants and incorporating their feedback into the policy. 

We need to get this right, or we’ll be doing it again in the future. If the goal is to improve productivity, the policy too should focus on productivity. 

2. Map the whole process.

The pressure is on OMB to collect data – so technology will play an important role here. Yet having worked on 39 projects just like this over the years, I know this is not a process that can be accelerated. It’s important to map the whole process out before implementing any sort of technology, or the risk is high that key steps will be overlooked. 

For example, we know there’s a form involved. Government employees must complete a telework agreement that requires approval by one or more supervisors. The agreement ensures certain conditions are met such as ensuring the employee has:

  • Completed the requisite online telework training
  • Adequate workspace free from distractions; 
  • Access to supporting tools for messaging, collaboration and printing;
  • Metrics for objectively demonstrating productivity. 

There are of course other requirements too, including re-certifying the telework agreement periodically. The point is that a telework agreement is more involved than just collecting a form. A form is merely a method of collecting data to support a process. That whole process needs to be considered for this to work out as intended and ensure telework is focused on productivity.  

3. Implement a purpose-built system. 

The last step is to define the requirements for a purpose-built system. There’s a decision to be made whether the government puts a single system in place for all agencies to use – or allows every agency to come up with their own. 

I believe the right answer is the former. A good example is why the system that is in use for many government ethics offices is our financial disclosure application (FDonline). It’s designed to support the annual data collection, facilitates multi-step review and approval and reporting on metrics such as the number of applications submitted, in progress, approved, declined or being appealed. 

The system has become the standard for agencies such as the USDA, DoI and FAA, among many others. For example, the FAA uses this to manage disclosure filing for 16,000 employees who are required to file disclosure forms. The parallels between financial disclosure and telework are remarkably close.  

Meeting citizens where they are

More and more of the things we do every day – shopping, banking, even finding love – are being done online. This was inconceivable twenty years ago, but today it’s the status quo. 

The government has not been immune to this trend either. OMB itself has started to use terms like “digital experience” which were previously only heard in Silicon Valley and Madison Avenue. 

The fact is more government processes are moving online. This includes engagement with citizens through websites, apps, chats and other digital channels. It just makes sense to have a significant part of the federal workforce there too. 

Yet we’ve also got to be able to prove the value if we are ever to put the debate over telework to rest. Proving that value starts by focusing on productivity.  

Rob Hankey is the CEO of Intelliworx which provides FedRAMP-authorized workflow management software solutions to more than 30 federal government departments and agencies. A retired rotary wing pilot for the U.S. Army, he later worked as a government employee before founding Intelliworx.