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Tracking a telework turnaround

It wasn't so long ago that a typical telework story in Federal Computer Week followed a predictable arc: Feds want it, outside groups encourage it, and managers resist it, usually for fuddy-duddy reasons such as a concern that employees will slack off if not watched.

In the past year or so, there has been a real change. The stories we've done more recently have largely lacked the management-aversion angle or at least featured it much less prominently. Managers’ resistance seems to be breaking down, and the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010, coupled with President Barack Obama's strong support, has no doubt gone some way toward easing the transition. Technology improvements that include faster, more secure home networks and the proliferation of cloud services have also helped.

Coverage now is more likely to focus on specific situations, such as the technological innovations that are giving rise to a virtual workforce or questions about unusual situations that might fall outside the boundaries of a standard telework policy.

For example, our workforce reporter, Camille Tuutti, wrote a blog entry about a question a reader had submitted: Should a worker who lives close to the office be allowed to telework?

“She lives less than a mile from work,” the reader wrote. “She could walk. Would you allow her to telework when it's obvious she wants to be able to go to the store when she wants, watch a TV show when she wants, etc.?”

Readers were generally supportive of the woman and didn’t share the concerns of the person posing the question. They wondered: If her work is satisfactory, what's the problem?

“Your assumption that she ‘really’ wants to drive around town all day and watch TV is so old-school that, for me, it's a tip-off that the management style in your office should be more closely examined,” one reader chided the questioner.

Readers also disputed the suggestion that telework is primarily about reducing pollution by encouraging less driving. “This is a ridiculous thread,” one wrote. “If people who choose to live far away from the office are given special consideration, people smart enough to live within walking distance should be allowed the same consideration.”

Another article, also by Tuutti, offered some examples of small agencies that have embraced telework with good results. The Library of Congress and the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration were featured as success stories, with examples of small pilot tests that grew into widespread programs.

Our readers responded enthusiastically to the article.

“I...believe the apprehension in embracing a mobile workforce is more fear than anything else — fear of not knowing and fear of loosening the reins on employees,” one wrote. “I have been slowly introduced to the telework program and now absolutely love it. Production and morale have dramatically increased in our department.”

“We’ve seen many success stories in the year since the passage of the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010,” commented Sam Davis, a vice president at the American Management Association’s Enterprise Government Solutions. “We expect to continue to see an increase in government agencies adopting telework for many reasons, including the recruitment and retention incentives mentioned. Leadership development training is a crucial part of this process as organizations continue to make these necessary changes.”

But another reader named Mike, commenting on the same article, added a cautionary note. “It's always a case-by-case basis.… I see more camaraderie and teamwork when folks are at work together. Short-notice meetings…usually require folks to be [physically] available to attend.”

Overall, it's fair to say that the tide has turned on telework. The conversation is no longer about whether the government will embrace the concept but how and under what conditions. Moreover, the conversation is shifting to even broader issues of mobility in off-site workers. The term “telework” still connotes an employee tied to a location, such as a home office, but mobility suggests an even greater freedom. Think of someone with an iPad at a coffee shop, reading their work e-mail over a latte and a danish.

Posted by Michael Hardy on Feb 22, 2012 at 7:26 PM

Reader Comments

Mon, Mar 5, 2012

I grew up on a farm where the only set hours were meal times (human and animal). Otherwise, work and personal activities were governed by the seasons and acts of god. What time some task is performed is insignificant as long as the conditions are right when it is performed and it is complete when the results of the task are needed for subsequent tasks to be performed in proper conditions. As long as trust and good communications exist constant visual monitoring of a person's work is unnecessary especially if you are using a results based rather than time based pay system.

Mon, Mar 5, 2012

OK. I'll ask the 500 pound gorilla question. A month ago, I spoke with someone who was working at home - government agency person on telework assignment. From the conversation, the person's speech, grasping for words, apparent confusion, either they were have a major medical issue or using alcohol or drugs. What does a manager do who suspects improper alcohol or drug use? By allowing this employee to work at home is the worst assignment that employee could receive.

Wed, Feb 29, 2012

I get more work done at home than I do in the office. In the office everyone want to chit chat about this and that. What the did last night, what was for dinner etc. Lets go for a walk during out break. Lets not and say we did. If managers were not so hung up on loosing control the should do everything on a case by case basis. Look at all those employees that came from the private section that owned their own business. In those folks time is money and trust me they know how to stick to a schedule and get the job done. If I stop by someplace for lunch my laptop is with me. Doesnt mean I need to go online to work you can do all the other works that needs to get done so you can upload those papers into the system etc. They do have a secure system on the laptops which you have to digital log into. No difference that going to your house and hooking upto a secure network with 128k encription. The managers just want to be in control which brings down morale big time. I used to enjoy my job but now there is a new SOP every week because it is Just Because or Just incase this were to happen. Looking for a new job to just Because I need to get away from all that. They create more HAVOK than anyone else. JMHO

Wed, Feb 29, 2012 R. Thompson Arizona

Stephen J.'s remark about security and information assurance is truely behind the times. I have been working exclusively from home for over a year, transmitting my work via secured internet connections. The security can be a pain sometimes, because of the lag in transmissions, however, its a small price to pay for the convenience of working from home. Times have changed for the better.

Fri, Feb 24, 2012

I have the ultimate case for why you don't need to all be in one place to work. My team has 5 people in it 2 are within 100 yards of each other in the same building, 1 is in a building 1/4 mile away 2 others are on 2 different floors of a building 32 miles away. We are able to meet and collaborate just as easily and we can use technology whether we are at work or working from home.

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