Accountability: The Key to Government Telework

How long is it going to be before the government slither out of the primordial goo and realize that their workplaces and work practices are teetering on the brink of extinction?

Both public and private sector employers around the globe have looked at their offices and noticed the employees have gone AWOL. Call it telework, mobile work, freelancing, or whatever you want, but the workers have already left the building. They’re on the road, at meetings, and increasingly working from home, coffee shops, co-working facilities, and just about anywhere there’s an internet connection.

Unlike the government, industry leaders are doing something about it. They’re embracing telework and other agile practices as part of a key shift in how and where they work. As a result, these leaders are saving billions, the employees are happier and more engaged, and they’re reducing their carbon footprint.

While GSA, PTO, and a handful of other US government agencies have proven that telework can work in government organisations and the benefits are real, relative to the private sector, federal telework is advancing at a glacial pace.

Capitol HIll Photo courtesy of Ron Cogswell

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

What’s the problem?

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

It’s not even that the concept hasn’t been studied enough. Federal telework pilots date back to the 1970s, and have been extremely successful and thoroughly documented over the years.

“If the 47% of federal employees already deemed eligible to telework did so just two days a week, the government could save a hefty $14 billion a year.”

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

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 substantially reduce costs in a number of areas, including real estate, absenteeism, turnover, healthcare.

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

Telework Photo courtesy of CitrixOnline

Based on conservative assumptions, if the 47% of federal employees already deemed eligible to telework, did so just two days a week, the government could save a hefty $14 billion a year.

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

What’s the holdback?

One of the the biggest holdbacks, the elephant in the room, is management mistrust. Most managers fear that without guidance, their people will be on the sofa eating bonbons, out golfing, or otherwise goofing off.

So What about setting goals and holding people accountable for reaching them? Since the 50’s, 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.” And what it reveals is that federal managers who think they’re “managing by walking around” aren’t actually managing, they’re babysitting.

What’s the solution?

We recently surveyed over 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 leaders also expressed the need for more and better training, especially management training.

Most critically, we heard a cry for accountability at all organizational levels, from the agency Secretary on down. More than 90% 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.