“Telework” in the Federal Government

The Office of Personnel Management is conducting an experiment with a “results-oriented work environment” in which each person is “free to do whatever they want, whenever they want, as long as the work gets done.”

A bureaucracy is defined as “government characterized by specialization of functions, adherence to fixed rules, and a hierarchy of authority.”

Many readers resent the term. While we may not like the term, our government is hardly unique in being called a bureaucracy. The word actually evolved from a French word bureaucratie. And, as our government gets larger, spends more money and involves more people, government “red tape,” regulations impacting our everyday life and control over our lives by government becomes more commonplace, the word seems to be coming back into vogue and has been used by our current president for his own political purposes.

The federal government has operated as an organization that defined bureaucracy for decades and, perhaps, for more than a century. There is a traditional way of doing work where the agency rents or buys a place to work, hires managers and supervisors, and employees work in a structured environment. Often, people come to work and leave at about the same time (although this has changed dramatically in the past two decades).

In all organizations, some people work hard, do a good job and everyone knows they can be counted on to contribute to the work of the organization. And, at the same time, there are people who are less dependable and often some who do not contribute much to the work of the organization and, in extreme cases, probably are a detriment to the work even though they are getting paid.

Having employees work away from the traditional office environment would be a big change in some agencies.

Regardless of what you may think of OPM director John Berry, he has been implementing new policies that are unusual in the federal government. Or, at least, if other agencies have urged supervisors to give employees in Washington administrative leave to walk to the Tidal Basin to enjoy the cherry blossoms, or sponsored a cooking contest to pick the healthiest recipes for a federal government cookbook, we are unaware of it.

But, aside from cookbooks and smelling cherry blossoms, there are other more significant changes in store for the federal workforce.

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) is starting the government’s first pilot test of the Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE) next month. It will involve about 400 OPM employees in Washington, DC and Boyers, Pa. The pilot will run through the end of this year.

A senior advisor to the OPM director told Congress recently about this change in approach. “Managers are expected to manage for results, rather than process. Employees are trusted to get the work done. This is a shift in culture from permission granting to performance guiding.”

What is a results-oriented work environment (ROWE)?

ROWE in practice means “each person is free to do whatever they want, whenever they want, as long as the work gets done.” Employees control their own calendars and are not required to be in the office if they can complete their tasks elsewhere.

This is how ROWE is described on a Facebook page on the topic:

Results-only Work Environment (ROWE) is a radical, commonsense rethinking of how we work and live.

In a ROWE, people are paid for results, not time. Everyone has complete control over their time every day. Work gets done and lives are richer.

Companies that embrace ROWE enjoy staggering increases in engagement and productivity.

There is now plenty of publicity celebrating the virtues of the “ROWE life” and OPM has obviously decided there is some merit to it. For example, this article on A Day in the ROWE Life shows a couple of young people sitting quietly on the grass, staring out at a body of water and, apparently, enjoying their daily work life. The author says: “I was totally relaxed and enjoyed time with my wife; I ate when I was hungry and slept when I was tired.”

In fact, a website on the ROWE method has a few articles extolling the virtues of having employees adopt the method now being tried by OPM. And, as the website includes links to favorable articles on the subject by the New York Times and National Public Radio, we can assume that the topic is now as fashionable as Total Quality Management was a few years ago so it isn’t surprising that the federal government is now going to be part of the new social experiment.

Telework is one term that has been used in the federal government for some time and, as a practical matter, that is or could be an essential element of the new program now being championed by OPM.

What is your view? Has your agency tried using telework or have you used it yourself? Does it have a viable future in the federal government?

Here are the results of our reader survey on this topic.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47