How to make telework really work

Tuesday - 8/10/2010, 5:00pm EDT

Evan Offstein, Frostburg State University and Jason Morwick, Cisco

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This week, Federal News Radio brings you the Best of the DorobekInsider. This interview originally aired on July 28, 2010.

We talk about teleworking a lot, but it seems there's a big difference between discussing it and actually putting a system in place that will work for feds.

According to the most recent federal employee survey by the Office of Personnel Management, only 10 percent of feds telework at least one day a week, and 12 percent said that they aren't even interested in telework.

But the survey found that 23 percent of feds say they aren't allowed to telework, and 7 percent said they don't telework because technical issues prevent them from doing so.

So, we decided to speak with a couple of different telework experts in order to sort out some issues.

Evan Offstein is an associate professor of business at Frostburg State University and Jason Morwick is a manager at Cisco Systems.

They are authors of Making Telework Work: Leading People and Leveraging Technology for High-Impact Results.

Offstein says, in order to get the process going, one has to be able to answer the big question: Why?

"You have to make a business case. To say that telework is there to make employees happy and satisfied -- that's only 20 percent of the issue. The real case, I think, is that a leader has to clearly specify how telework can lead to a competitive advantage. Often, we find that that just isn't done."

Security, of course, can be another huge hurdle. Though it varies depending upon the organization, there are examples of organizations that deal with very sensitive information which have successful teleworking programs.

Both contend that, because of this, security should not really be used as an ultimate excuse for not allowing any employees to telecommute.

"In my experience, the biggest hurdles are not usually around technology, but around leadership, change management and dealing with an organizational culture. For example, what we call the 'out of sight, out of mind syndrome' -- a perception of inequality or unfairness between office workers and teleworkers. Or, perhaps it's trust issues," Morwick says.

This is why a lot of the onus on making telework work must fall on the leader.

"I don't want to use the word 'overcommunicate', but a lot of stuff that we take for granted, like the watercooler talk, leaders have to force this issue -- through email, picking up the phone, message boards, chat rooms, that type of stuff. Also, we found that the leaders that make telework work would often draft team charters that would really specify the nature [of] why this teleworking team is being put together," Offstein explains.

He also says that successful telecommuting programs are very results-oriented that have leaders who are focused on the end game, not the process itself.

With the federal government, however, it can often be hard to simply focus on results.

"We're working against hundreds of years of management by walking around. . . . This is a change in mindset. For telework to work, leaders have to change their mindset to focus on the results and to provide the support systems, technology and otherwise, to make it so that people can get the results. Management by walking around -- or leading by walking around -- I think those days are done," Offstein says.

In their book, both authors point out that most employees are ready, willing and, more often than not, able to work from home or a remote location. Therefore, it is up to organization leaders to modernize, think outside of the box and not worry about having so much face-to-face time.

"At the bare bones minimum, you need suprisingly little to actually telework. You simply need an Internet connection. . . . You don't even need a phone nowadays. . . . So, it really depends, again, on the organization. For example, if you want your teleworkers to be a bit more mobile, then a basic laptop with wireless capability and a cellphone should do. If you want your employees to have access to information after hours, or you want access to your employees at all hours, then, of course, you move to a PDA. If you want to increase their collaboration and productivity, then there's file sharing. . . . So, it really just depends on the organization and what they expect their employees to do," Morwick explains.