Managers need to unleash workers for successful telework

Wednesday - 10/19/2011, 5:46am EDT

Emily Kopp, reporter, Federal News Radio

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The benefits of telework are attracting agency leaders and rank-and-file workers alike, but they still have not broken through the final barrier: management reluctance.

"People enjoy telework. They enjoy the freedom of it. They feel like they get more work done at home. So the benefit to the employee is very clear," said Justin Johnson, deputy chief of staff at the Office of Personnel Management. He moderated a panel on the issue at a town hall meeting Tuesday in Washington sponsored by the Telework Exchange.

"The benefit to agencies, whether it be real-estate savings or energy savings or retention, really accrue at the agency level," Johnson said. "The challenge is: How do you make that front-line supervisor, who may be nervous about it, see the benefit for them?"

Those managers are often the lone holdouts. They may worry about supervising employees who don't share the same office space, Johnson said. Yet managers also are the lynchpins in successful telework programs.

Johnson said managers should understand that they are responsible for achieving telework's benefits, from making employees happier and more productive to saving money on office space.

Panelists had plenty of suggestions to guide them in supervising employees from afar.

Managing work, not workers

After the latest round of the Base Realignment and Closure process, Jim Neighbors, principal deputy director of requirements and strategic integration in the office of the undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness, realized that he could lose most of his 240 employees who were facing longer commutes to the office.

"I don't want to lose these people because I don't want to fail," he said.

He became a telework evangelist.

"My philosophy is: Manage the work, don't manage the people," he said. He told his staff, "As long as you can do the job, I don't care when you work."

He said they became more productive. As more of his employees began to telework, he gave away their office space. With only 40 percent of the original space remaining, Neighbors' staff now have to share cubicles when they do come into the office.

Loosening the leash

"If you have a good employee who is there all the time, they will be a good employee probably out teleworking," he said. "If you have someone who needs more work as far as management is concerned, then you'll have to manage them a little more. And there are going to be some employees that you just don't let them do it."

But for telework to work, supervisors can't breathe — either in person or virtually — down employees' necks.

Managers and employees should have a clear understanding of expectations before starting telework, Neighbors said. The Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 requires that employees sign telework agreements at the outset.

"You have to err on 'I trust them. They're out there,' and if there are problems, then shore up the dam," said Microsoft global workplace strategist Martha Clarkson. "Rather than saying, 'I'm going to start off really structured and then get looser as they prove themselves.'" No one likes to work like that, she added.

On the other hand, "don't ever let an employee say, 'I can't do it. I'm teleworking,'" warned Neighbors.

He said he retains the right to bring employees back to the office for important meetings. He also makes clear that teleworking employees must work through weather emergencies.

Bringing people back in

But there are times when even employees who plan to work outside the office all the time should actually be on campus.

At the Patent and Trademark Office, 6,400 employees, mostly examiners, telework at least one day a week. More than half of them work in satellite locations, including their homes, nearly all the time.

But first they have to work on campus for two years, said PTO telework senior advisor Danette Campbell.

"Patent examination and trademark examination is very complex work and we feel that these individuals need to be with a team, with a mentor, with a supervisory patent or trademark examiner before they can work independently successfully and, certainly, we want to deploy them with the tools that are going to ensure their success," she said.

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