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Accountability: The Key to Government Telework

Telework has proven benefits, so what is taking government so long to allow it?

Feb. 6, 2014 - 11:00AM   |  
By KATE LISTER   |   Comments
Kate Lister is president of Global Workplace Analytics, a consulting and research firm that specializes in making the business case for agile workplace strategies.
Kate Lister is president of Global Workplace Analytics, a consulting and research firm that specializes in making the business case for agile workplace strategies. ()

What is it going to take for government to slither out of the primordial goo and realize that their workplaces and work practices are teetering on the edge of extinction?

Public and private sector employers around the globe have looked at their offices and found the employees are MIA. Call it telework, or mobile work, or whatever you want, but the people have already left the building. They’re on the road, at meetings, and increasingly working from home or in third places such as coffee shops, co-working facilities, and just about anywhere there’s an internet connection.

Industry leaders are doing something about it. They’re embracing telework and other agile practices as part of a fundamental shift in how and where they work. And they’re reaping the benefits. They’re saving billions, their people are happier and more engaged, and they’re reducing their carbon footprint.

While some agencies such as the General Services Administration, the Patent and Trademark Office and a handful of others have proven it can work in government and that the benefits are real, government-wide telework is advancing at a snail’s pace relative to the private sector.

Several presidents, Congress, and even Mother Nature have sent clear and repeated cries for more telework. So why does only 8 percent of the federal workforce telework regularly?

What’s the problem?

It’s not that federal employees don’t want to telework. Nearly 90 percent say they would if they could.

It’s not that the concept is too new or that it hasn’t been studied enough. Successful federal telework pilots date back to the 1970s, and have been thoroughly documented over the years.

It’s not that senior leaders and lawmakers haven’t encouraged it. In 2010, lack of progress on a decade old law that required every federal worker to telework to the maximum extent possible, led to passage of the Telework Enhancement Act—an attempt to add teeth to the earlier mandate. (Unfortunately, with the bill watered down in committee, many argue its bark was far worse than its bite.)

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And it’s not that the costs are too high. Study after study shows that telework—when implemented in concert with other agile work strategies—can significantly reduce real estate, absenteeism, turnover, healthcare, and many other costs.

What’s more, telework has been proven to increase productivity, attract talent, and improve employee engagement.

Based on conservative assumptions, if the 47 percent of federal employees already deemed eligible teleworked just two days a week, the savings could total $14 billion a year.

In 2010, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the cost of a government-wide telework rollout at $30 million over 5 years. That’s less than half of OPM’s estimate of lost productivity from a single day snow closure.

What’s the holdup?

The biggest holdup, the elephant in the room, is management mistrust. Most managers fear that, left untethered, their people will be on the sofa eating bonbons, out golfing, or otherwise goofing off.

Hello? What about setting goals and holding people accountable for reaching them? Since the 1950s, that’s what management experts have been saying is the key to maximizing both engagement and performance.

“Telework doesn’t create management problems,” said Sharon Wall, GSA Regional Commissioner. “It reveals them.” What it reveals is that federal managers who think they’re “managing by walking around”’—a management style popular in the 70’s and 80’s—are kidding themselves. They’re not managing, they’re babysitting.

What’s the solution?

We recently surveyed more than a hundred federal telework leaders about the obstacles to telework. We received over 300 impassioned write-in comments to the multiple-choice questions. What we heard was that managers needed to manage by results, rather than headcounts. The need for more and better training, especially management training, also came through loud and clear.

Most critically, we heard a cry for accountability at all organizational levels, from the agency Secretary on down. More than 90 percent of respondents said making telework part of a manager’s performance goals would force results. Ditto for those at the other end of the pay scale: “The problem is, I can’t fire the slackers,” said one senior respondent.

Hold people accountable…now there’s an evolutionary concept.

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