4 reasons why federal managers resist telework

In response to a recent blog post, federal managers explain why they would rather not allow employees to work from home.

The best arguments for telework in the federal government will get nowhere unless they take into account the best arguments against it.

And by most accounts, the most visible telework opponents typically are federal managers. Federal employees often tell stories of managers who severely limit or outright ban the option of working from home, even in the face of an agency’s pro-telework policy.

So what gives? Reading the comments on recent telework stories at FCW.com, one might assume that some bosses simply lack the management chops — and the self-confidence — that are needed to oversee a distributed workforce. And without a doubt, that often might be the case.

But federal managers commenting on a recent blog post ("Why do federal managers oppose telework?") tell another story. As they see it, telework often is not in the best interest of the agency — or, for that matter, of the employees. Although a nice lifestyle perk, telework can diminish the ability of employees to meet the demands of their jobs, managers say.

However, it’s worth noting that in many cases federal managers are not opposed to telework as a rule. But they have serious reservations that they want to see addressed before they are willing to let employees commute via the Internet.

Here is a summary of the four most compelling arguments that managers have to offer. (Also be sure to read the recent column in Federal Computer Week by Patricia Niehaus, “Making telework happen: It’s up to managers now.”) Some comments have been edited for style, length or clarity.

1. Technical disconnects

The basic concern is simple: Home offices often do not measure up to the demands of the job, managers say.

Someone who stays home occasionally to wrap up a report might need nothing more than a computer with basic office software and Internet connectivity, but that’s not enough for regular teleworkers.

They need government-provided portable devices, security software, management software and other tools to help them work seamlessly with their supervisor and colleagues. Some agencies might support telework in principle but not in their budgets.

Security is also tricky. Technically, virtual private networks make it possible for employees to link in from anywhere, but security often takes a big bite out of network performance, as one Agriculture Department employee found out.

“Security on the network is so heavy that it takes a long period of time to get the work done and not cause problems with the applications we work with,” the reader wrote.

Another concern is the physical security of the home office, especially given past incidents in which laptop computers containing sensitive data were stolen from homes.

“So it’s not as simple as saying, ‘You can work at home today,’” writes a reader named John. “The agency must evaluate risk versus the cost.”

2. Disconnected employees

Ideally, employees who work at home should not be “out of sight, out of mind,” but often that is how it works, according to managers and employees.

Sure, co-workers can use e-mail, instant messaging and chat rooms to keep in touch throughout the day. But inevitably conversations of consequence spring up in the hallway, the kitchen or even the parking garage that can’t be replicated online.

This is a problem especially in the event of an unanticipated, quick-turnaround assignment, when people are scrambling to respond. Teleworkers, once they get patched in, might have to spend a long time playing catch-up.

To make matters worse, some managers have had bad experiences with employees who are online but out of touch.

“I have attempted to reach federal employees at [the Office of Personnel Management] who supposedly ‘work from home’ and guess what? In their ‘work from home days,’ they do not respond at all,” one reader wrote.

Telework also puts an added burden on people who work in the office, especially supervisors who often end up filling in for employees at impromptu face-to-face meetings with outside clients or political appointees.

“Try patching in teleworking employees to participate — without sufficient support staff to do this — and you [understand] one of the many reasons why no one wants to be in middle management anymore,” another reader wrote.

3. Management matters

In theory, a manager should be able to work with employees equally well whether they are in the office, on the road or at home. As far as managing performance goes — that is, defining goals and measuring outcomes — that might be true. But that is only half the story, some managers say.

Between performance reviews, a manager should be checking in with employees constantly, making sure they know their priorities and how to achieve them. How much of that is lost when an employee is out of the office on a regular basis?

“Telephones and e-mail are good for communicating facts, but nuances are lost,” says one manager. “If I can’t see someone’s face and body language, and they can’t see mine, we are missing out on 60 to 80 percent of the communication channel."

“I may not like it,” the reader adds, “but it’s often the things that are left unsaid or unwritten that represent the most critical part of a message.”

A manager also needs to think about how his or her team is perceived by the powers-that-be, especially when it comes to dealing with a crisis. Unfair, but true, says one reader.

“If the rest of the federal government is anything like the Defense Department, they reward the folks who come up with heroic solutions to crises, but they don’t reward the team that does its job and prevents crises from ever happening,” one reader wrote. “The former can’t telecommute because their processes aren’t well defined; the latter can telecommute but would then go from low visibility to complete invisibility. What manager can afford to run an invisible team?”

4. Bad apple? Bad news.

When it comes to the telework debate, no issue is so divisive as the question of trust. Many readers say most managers who dislike telework simply do not trust their employees to work without someone looking over their shoulders. Managers say that is only partially true.

They would be willing to trust some of their employees to telework, but not others. They get the willies just thinking about some employees being allowed to work without supervision.

“We’ve seen countless comments by managers who observe this new breed of ‘tech-savvy’ people who spend too much time at work updating their personal Web sites or chatting with friends outside the office,” wrote Michael D. Long. “Taking them off-site will certainly lead to abuses that will at some point generate undesirable media attention and public reactions.”

Some people argue that managers can deal with the bad apples, whether they are working in the office or at home, by developing a performance management system that is based on meaningful and measurable metrics.

But it’s no secret that the process for dealing with underperforming feds leaves something to be desired and that many managers would rather just avoid it. As they see it, their best available option is to keep those employees on a short leash.

Unfortunately, in some cases, everyone ends up on a short leash because the manager does not have the authority to set telework policy on a case-by-case basis.

Some employees “do not have the desire to excel. If I provide telecommunicating privileges to the one who does, then I have to do the same for that employee who is not as dedicated,” wrote Scott Glass. “We are forced to be ‘fair’ and treat all employees the same.”