One of the barely reported success stories from the recent blizzards that inundated the East Coast is the story of telework. The story is simple-despite the fact that the federal government was closed for four days, about a third of all DC-area federal workers still reported for work. These federal workers are people who already have the ability to work securely from their homes, so those who had power simply logged in remotely and kept working.
I know this sounds unremarkable, but just the opposite is true. It's a significant step in the management of the federal workforce, and it's a departure from the practice at many private sector organizations where working from home is viewed with suspicion or outright hostility. But according to the Telework Exchange, the federal government is doing more in supporting remote workers than nearly any other large employer.
So the questions becomes, why is it only a third of the federal workforce? And a bigger question is, why is the federal government ahead of the curve in this?
The issues facing federal telework are the same as they are in the private sector, with one added level of difficulty. Many federal employees work on tasks that involve very sensitive information. Finding a way to do this securely is a struggle. But the greatest obstacle really isn't security. The biggest obstacle is management.
In the federal government, as in the private sector, many-perhaps most-managers don't believe people are working if they don't see them at their desks. The fact that remote workers usually have higher morale, are usually more productive, have less sick time, and can work in spite of the weather is beside the point. To many managers, if they aren't in the office, they're at home, watching daytime television, loafing.
Getting the negative impression of teleworkers changed has been a huge obstacle in the federal government. The reason for the level of success, as modest as it is, comes from legislation that requires the federal government to support teleworking. The reasons behind this are clear if you live and work in the DC area. Traffic is some of the worst in the US. Commuting is a huge morale killer. And the cost of providing parking or public transit is significant. Couple this with the cost of air pollution and needed highway capacity, and you have some good reasons.
Making the task easier in the DC area are clusters of telework centers in the suburbs that allow workers who don't want to, or who can't, work from home find a place to work near home that provides the working environment and security they need to work remotely.
So what's the problem with everyone else? In some industries, there's no problem, but for many the resistance to remote workers is the same as it is for the federal government. Managers want their workers where they can keep an eye on them. In the process, they waste their company's money, burden their employees with long commutes and high expenses, and reduce their own productivity and increase their exposure to disasters.
Of course, there are jobs that don't lend themselves to remote working. But many office workers, and most knowledge workers, really don't need to be in the office every day. These people report to the office because it makes their supervisors feel better. My assumption is that most of the managers who refuse to allow employees to work remotely at least part of the time do it because they're unsure of their ability to lead. To boost their confidence, they want to see the worker, rather than depend on the quality and quantity of their work.
This means that one question your organization should be asking is whether it's in your best interests to humor weak and ineffective managers, or to find those than can lead effectively even when they're not able to personally micro-manage their employees.