Supervising in the Virtual Age

If you are currently a supervisor in the Federal government, and there was any lingering doubt in your mind as to whether Federal agencies have entered the “Virtual Age,” the Telework Enhancement Act (TEA), signed into law on December 9, 2010, should have put those doubts to rest.

If you are currently a supervisor in the Federal government, and there was any lingering doubt in your mind as to whether Federal agencies have entered the “Virtual Age,” the Telework Enhancement Act (TEA), signed into law on December 9, 2010, should have put those doubts to rest.

The catalyst for the TEA was undoubtedly the exceptionally snowy 2009/2010 winter in the Washington, D.C., area. Federal agencies were shut down for a record 4 ½ days in a row by the February 2010 storm variously referred to as “Snomaggedon,” “Snowzilla,” and the “Blizzard of 2010,” according to the Washington Post.

A February 8, 2010, article by Christian Science Monitor staff writer Peter Grier was titled “Federal government closes: Why can’t they all work from home?” It noted that “Shutting down the federal government costs $100 million a day in lost productivity.” It pointed out that, according to an August 2009 report from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), about 9 percent of eligible federal employees, a little over 102,000 people, had approved telework agreements that allowed them to work from home.

The article went on to opine that “the Feds are coming a little late to the whole working-in-your-pajamas party, so they have yet to catch up to the private sector in this area. OPM is fully aware of this, and they’re trying to change as fast as they can.” According to OPM Director John Berry, speaking at a conference in September 2010, telework clearly aids productivity. The article quoted Berry as saying “It needs to be part of the ethos of an office. No meeting or conference call should be canceled because someone is working from home.” OPM’s handbook on emergency closure procedures states that “Agencies may require teleworkers to work when the agency is closed.”

OPM Director Berry, in a Memorandum for Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies, summarized the benefits of the TEA, observing that it provided agencies with greater flexibility in managing their workforce. “The Act provides a framework for agencies to better leverage technology and to maximize the use of flexible work arrangements, which will aid in recruiting new Federal workers, retain valuable talent and allow the Federal government to maintain productivity in various situations — including those involving national security and other emergency situations.”

The memo further stated that “To maximize the impact of this new law, OPM will be coordinating agency efforts to build effective telework programs with three key objectives in mind:

  1. Improve Continuity of Operations (COOP) – using telework as a strategy to keep government operational during inclement weather or other emergencies.
  2. Promote Management Effectiveness – using telework to target reductions in management costs related to employee turnover and absenteeism, and to reduce real estate costs and environmental impact and transit costs.
  3. Enhance Work-life Balance– using telework to allow employees to better manage their work and family obligations, retaining a more resilient Federal workforce able to better meet agency goals.”

The Telework Enhancement Act

  • Requires the head of each executive agency, in consultation with the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), to establish a teleworking policy within 180 days of enactment; determine the eligibility of all employees of the agency to participate in telework; and notify employees of their eligibility to telework.
  • Requires that the telework policy ensure that telework does not diminish employee performance or agency operations; requires a mandatory written agreement outlining the specific work arrangement that is agreed to between management and employee; and, provides that an employee may not be authorized to telework if performance of that employee does not comply with the terms of the written agreement between management and employee.
  • Allows agencies to temporarily deny permission to telework if, in the judgment of the agency head, the employee is needed to respond to an emergency.
  • Prohibits an employee from teleworking if the employee has:
    • Been officially disciplined for being absent without permission for more than five days in a calendar year; or
    • Been officially disciplined for viewing, downloading, or exchanging pornography including child pornography, on a Federal Government computer or while performing official Federal Government duties.

The clear implication of the Act and the implementing guidelines is that many more Federal employees should have the opportunity to telework on either a regularly scheduled or situational basis.

While the Act is new, and the subsequent emphasis on telework is probably the strongest we have seen, the Federal Government’s involvement in telework and virtual work environments actually goes back many years, as documented by Wendell Joice, Ph.D., in a comprehensive February 2000 article titled “The Evolution of Telework in the Federal Government.”

I am not sure there is a clear consensus among agencies/organizations on the definitions of key terms associated with this program. Ruth Mayhew, writing in Demand Media, opined that “Virtual offices, telecommuting and telework all mean essentially the same thing: employees work from another location outside of the traditional office.”

OPM’s April 2011 Guide to Telework in the Federal Government, quoting from the TEA, defines telework as “a work flexibility arrangement under which an employee performs the duties and responsibilities of such employee’s position, and other authorized activities, from an approved worksite other than the location from which the employee would otherwise work.”

The Guide goes on to say that, “For consistency, OPM recommends that all agencies use the term ‘telework’ for reporting purposes and for all other activities related to policy and legislation, as defined in the Act.”

Interestingly, there is no reference in the current Guide to virtual work or virtual offices. However, an earlier version of the Guide stated that “The terms ‘telework,’ ‘telecommuting,’ ‘flexible workplace,’ ‘remote work,’ ‘virtual work,’ and ‘mobile work’ are all used to refer to work done outside of the traditional on-site work environment.”

Michael Keating used that definition in his article titled “Federal agencies are expanding telework opportunities, which appeared in GovPro on August 22, 2011. And “virtual work” continues to appear in the definition of telework under “Frequently Asked Questions” on the website.

Whether your agency/organization also considers those terms to be interchangeable, or finds some differences between them – i.e., telework consists of employees working from home or a telework center in the relatively immediate area of the office, while virtual workers are considered those who work from agency offices in another part of the country – I think supervisors can expect a significant increase in the number of employee requests to spend part or all of each week or pay period working from outside the office.

While most employees are likely to have been designated as eligible for telework by now, in accordance with the Act, actual participation is by no means guaranteed. As noted above, the TEA requires a written agreement between management and the employee “outlining the specific work arrangements” and very significantly states that an agency’s telework policy must “ensure that telework does not diminish employee performance or agency operations.”

My first experience supervising in a virtual environment was not particularly dramatic or burdensome. The National Park Service office where I worked was located in two different, but adjacent, buildings. Most of the Human Resources (HR) employees I supervised were located with me in the regional office building, but several were located in the building occupied by the Denver Service Center. I planned to get over to the other building on a frequent basis but even though it was only steps away I didn’t get there nearly as often as I had planned. Fortunately, I had excellent employees who were self-starters and I never had to worry about what they were getting done.

But throughout my supervisory career, the “standard” work situation was that supervisors could either see all of their employees directly from their offices, or, depending on the number of employees and the space configuration, could be at a subordinate’s office without walking very far.

That isn’t the case now and will be much less the case in the future. Supervisors are likely to have employees teleworking 1-5 days per week or per pay period, and may have people reporting to them who are physically located in other parts of the state, other states, or even other countries.

In part two, I will examine why so many employees are eager to participate in the telework program, and how agencies can benefit in terms of recruitment and retention, reasonable accommodation, and mission accomplishment. I will also address some of the concerns that managers and supervisors have with telework, and the need for supervisors, employees and unions representing bargaining unit employees to cooperate and collaborate with each other in developing and maintaining a successful telework program.

About the Author

Steve Oppermann completed his Federal career on March 31, 1997, after more than 26 years of service, virtually all in human resources management. He served as Regional Director of Personnel for GSA and advised and represented management in six agencies during his federal career. Steve passed away after a battle with cancer on December 22, 2013.