Tyler Robinson is the Chairman of the Executive Board for Young Government Leaders, and Portfolio Risk Officer at the Export-Import Bank of the United States.
Telework is a simple concept where an employee does his or her work at a location outside of the office. However, it can be a divisive topic within teams and agencies. There are numerous benefits to agencies, managers, and employees that embrace sound telework practices. There are also challenges, even in well thought our programs. Agencies, managers, and employees who recognize these challenges will be better equipped to handle obstacles as they occur.
This last winter in DC demonstrated one benefit to agencies whose employees are telework-ready. Even if the physical building is closed, individuals can continue to fulfill their agencies mission remotely. For employees there are many benefits, from increased flexibility and work-life balance to improved productivity. According to a 2013 Young Government Leaders survey, 36 percent of respondents telework at least once a month. In the 2013 Federal Employee Viewpoint survey 17 percent of all government employees teleworked at least once a month. Furthermore, in the YGL survey, 44 percent thought that teleworking increases their productivity, with 50 percent saying there is no change. Teleworking can also reduce commute times so people can spend more time with their families. The average commute time in the YGL survey was 37 minutes. In addition, 47 percent said their number one source of stress was their job followed by finances at 19 percent. Adding more flexibility may help with this, which is good for both the employee and their manager. Replacing employees is time consuming and results in lost productivity. Having options that may reduce the chance of someone leaving is a benefit to all.
We have looked at some of the positives associated with telework, but there are challenges involved that shouldn’t be ignored. These challenges are on both the employee side and the management side.
For employees, face-to-face interaction is still important. I have talked with many young people in government, and being in the office is both professional and social. Having interactions with coworkers is part of why you enjoy or don't enjoy the job you have.
Another reason for face-to-face interaction is to learn and grow in one’s career. I have been fortunate to have many wonderful bosses in my career. I learn best by asking questions. There are many times when I am having a problem and I will walk into the office of one of those in my chain of command and just talk it out with them. I have also had senior leaders take the time to sit down and read over something I wrote and comment, sometimes in red ink, where I can improve. Whether they know it or not, those are the learning moments that have helped me grow. Those interactions are a little harder to do online. That is when being intentional comes to play.
For managers, having their staff telework is both a challenge and an opportunity. When employees start to telework this is a great opportunity to sit down and think about the various tasks, projects, etc. they performs and have a conversation. Some tasks are more suited for teleworking than others, discussing with them these different tasks is both a coaching moment and an opportunity to increase the teleworking experience for all. In the YGL survey, about 5 percent thought that telework decreased their productivity compared to 21 percent that thought their boss thought telework decreased productivity. Communicating beforehand can help both parties. However, sometimes employees may be less productive teleworking. This is where doing the legwork beforehand helps. If you have tasks that have specific deliverables, it will be easier to measure whether they are being done. Start with those tasks when someone is beginning to telework and grow the duties they perform offsite accordingly. There can also be some unexpected challenges that occur. For example, some people early in their career have not had a lot of experience writing professionally whether memos, emails to management, etc. Writing in a professional environment, even in an email form, can be quite different than other digital communication they have experienced. This is a great opportunity to communicate how they can improve, even if it means bringing out the red pen.
Telework is an excellent resource, but its challenges shouldn’t be ignored as they are real, but can be navigated.