How the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the evolution of telework

Telework had moved slowly for the last decade

Governments at all levels in the United States are suddenly facing the need to do much of their work from a distance. While the coronavirus pandemic is the immediate driver of the sudden shift to working from home, the foundation for the transition to distance work actually began more than a decade ago. Here’s the backstory.

The federal government had been seen as the leader in the use of distance work arrangements largely because of a 2010 law that codifies a federal commitment to the adoption of telework. The law requires all federal agencies to allow telework, designate a telework managing officer, and provide training to both employees and managers. It also requires agencies to incorporate telework into their continuity of operations plans. At the time, the rationale for adoption was to improve employee work-life balance.

Lessons from the 2010 Legislation on Telework

A 2011 IBM Center report by Dr. Scott Overmeyer looked at several federal agencies that were pioneers in the broad adoption of telework before the Telework Act was passed. 

He describes four hurdles to telework their managers faced in implementing a telework strategy, which are still relevant today:

  • Technological
  • Social
  • Operational

Overmeyer then describes how agencies, such as the Patent and Trademark Office and the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), addressed these issues and successfully implemented a telework initiative. He found initial resistance among managers around moving to telework because they could not see their employees. DISA, however, overcame this obstacle when the Washington, D.C. area was paralyzed by a snowstorm but the agency was able to continue operations without a hitch.

DISA’s Aaron Glover said at the time: “Telework is a key enabler of the Continuity of Operations (COOP) program.”

Prior to the coronavirus, the federal government had not widely embraced telework. The Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM’s) latest annual report on the implementation of the Telework Act reports that 42 percent of federal employees were classified as eligible to participate in a telework program, but only 22 percent actually participated.

Why the low participation rate? Interestingly, a 2010 article in Washington Technology identified four reasons federal managers resist the use of telework – and those reasons remained fresh right up until the coronavirus pandemic forced the shift: technological issues such as connectivity, an inability to be immediately available for impromptu meetings, the inability to convey intangible information or priorities, and distrust of some employees’ work ethics.

Telework Guidance Updated

Since 2010, OPM and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) have issued a series of guidance around the use of telework. OPM’s guidance focuses on “how to” topics via a one-stop website. OMB’s early guidance focused on IT purchasing requirements and security requirements; after the coronavirus, however, its guidance consisted of increasingly urgent demands that agencies shift to telework: “Maximize telework across the nation for the Federal workforce (including mandatory telework, if necessary) . . . “

However, not all federal jobs can easily convert to telework. For example, about 15 percent of the federal workforce is comprised of healthcare workers – doctors and nurses at veterans’ hospitals. Also, many governmental functions are legitimately concerned about security and privacy of the work they do and data they collect and use. These include: law enforcement, regulatory oversight, benefits determination, national security, homeland security, and intelligence agencies.

The Government Accountability Office tracks the implementation of telework and found that the number of positions that might be appropriate were not well-documented. The urgency of the shift to distance work arrangements as a result of the coronavirus, however, has begun to challenge many of these assumptions as agencies struggle to find ways to continue operations. There may be lessons from some of the unconventional pioneers of distance work, such as the military.

Pioneers at Working from a Distance

Distance work has been around for a number of years in the military and intelligence community, even with the concerns of security. They have used electronic collaborative tools to orchestrate work across distributed work teams, often located around the globe in different time zones.

A 2016 Center for Strategic & International Studies report by Greg Treverton describes the use of virtual teams, distance work, and collaborative tools in the intelligence community.

That report describes cross-agency team arrangements where “only a handful work together or have even met face-to-face.” These teams use MS SharePoint to host chats, share files, and organize social networks. They use various collaborative tools, many based on widely available commercial technology:

  • Intellipedia (like Wikipedia) is used for curating, reference, and research.
  • Instant Messaging, chats, and blogs are used for managing.
  • I-Space is used to discover other analysts.
  • Intelink searches allow access to 180 million indexed documents.

Similarly, the military is also an advocate of distance work tools, as noted by former general Stanley McCrystal, who has described how he led military special operations half-way across the globe via videoconferencing calls more than a decade ago.

Distance Work Is Changing How Work Gets Done

The rapid shift to distance work as a result of the coronavirus is changing how work gets done in federal, state, and local governments. For example, at the federal level:

  • The Board of Veterans’ Appeals has accelerated its use of tele-hearings, when it used to only allow in-person hearings.
  • The Veterans Benefits Administration suspended in-person medical exams for disability benefits to be conducted by VA doctors. It has largely shifted to the use of tele-health interviews and documentation from private doctors.
  • Even Congress is making changes: the House of Representatives is allowing members to introduce bills and other floor documents electronically for the first time.
  • Even more significantly, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has authorized broader use of telehealth visits to be reimbursed, and loosened privacy restrictions on sharing personal medical information on a temporary basis. If telehealth visits are made permanent, these kinds of changes could fundamentally transform how healthcare is delivered.

The shift to distance work arrangements also is driving changes in how work gets done at the state and local levels. This is causing them to rethink previous barriers to change – even if these changes are seen as temporary.

For example:

  • California state court hearings are going virtual for the first time. Governingquotes Alice Armitage, a law professor at UC Hastings in San Francisco: “This pandemic will open everyone’s mind, and gets people to move out of their silos.”
  • About a dozen state legislatures, including New York, are making provisions to convene and vote remotely.
  • Virtual public meetings are being allowed for local city councils in some states, according to Governing. This could expand the potential for citizen engagement opportunities.

Interestingly, the four reasons federal managers raised a decade ago to resist the transition to distance work arrangements are still alive today. It seems increasingly unlikely, though, that things will go back to the way they were pre-coronavirus pandemic — in part because managers have been forced by necessity to learn how to manage differently to achieve mission results.

Future columns will explore further the changes and impact that the shift to distance work and distributed teams are having on work, and how different agencies are adapting.

Note: This post is the third in a series on distance work:

Part 1: The Future of Work is Suddenly Here: “Distance Work” is Transforming the Workplace.

Part 2: How Is the Private Sector Pivoting to “Distance Work?

About the Author

John M. Kamensky is a senior fellow at the IBM Center for the Business of Government and a fellow at the National Academy of Public Administration. He can be reached at john.kamensky@us.ibm.com.

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