Tracking a telework turnaround

FCW's coverage reveals the changing attitudes toward telework.

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.