Supervising in the Virtual Age: Part Two

Barriers to telework have more to do with attitudes than technology. Many supervisors who question the wisdom of the movement toward virtual offices and wonder how, or even if, they can ensure that employees who are teleworking are being as productive working from home.

In part one of this topic, I speculated that some form of virtual supervision is likely to be as common in the near future as being in the same office with my employees was during most of my Federal career.

At the request of a reader, I will start part two by defining telework. The Telework Enhancement Act says that the term “refers to 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.”

If, as Peter Grier opined in the Christian Science Monitor, the Federal Government has been late to the telework “pajama party,” my guess is that the barriers have been more attitudinal than technological. I think there are many supervisors who question the wisdom of the current movement toward virtual offices and wonder how, or even if, they can ensure that employees who are teleworking are being as productive working from home as they or other employees are when working in the office.

According to the Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM) Guide to Telework in the Federal Government, managers and supervisors can benefit from telework because it

  • helps with recruiting and retaining the best possible workforce
  • ensures Continuity of Operations and maintains operations during emergency events – telework is a key component in ensuring the performance of essential Government functions during National or local emergencies such as natural disasters or National security incidents; or other situations that may disrupt normal operations
  • promotes management effectiveness by targeting reductions in management costs related to employee turnover and absenteeism, and reduces real estate costs, transit costs, and environmental impact
  • enhances work/life effectiveness and balance – telework allows employees to better manage their work and family obligations, thereby retaining a more resilient, results-oriented Federal workforce better able to meet agency mission and goals.

In many large private sector firms, telework seems to be widely accepted, and that also appears to be the case in OPM, which has clearly tried to set a positive, proactive example. And the agency regulations I have seen to date indicate strong support for the telework program.

Much of the responsibility for implementing telework will continue to rest with individual supervisors, who, upon receiving requests for telework schedules, will have to determine whether and to what extent positions they supervise can function wholly or partly outside of the office. Some jobs may have to be broken down into their component parts before the supervisor can make a valid assessment of their suitability for telework. If an employee requests a telework schedule, it makes sense for the supervisor to ask him/her to specifically identify which parts of the job could logically be performed outside the office. In what I envision as a truly collaborative process, the supervisor could then sit down with the employee and determine to what extent, if any, it would be feasible for the employee to telework.

There are positions which don’t appear to lend themselves to telework. For example, when a wildfire occurs, a firefighter pretty much has to be there in person; phoning in to offer moral support just won’t cut it. Similarly, a receptionist whose primary responsibility is to greet visitors probably can’t reasonably expect to telework if there is only one such position, at least until the government adopts hologram technology. Other types of jobs have more inherent flexibility. I have recently been advised by a manager of contract specialists that such jobs can often be performed off-site. (Note: I briefly served as a contract specialist but people who worked with me can verify that I learned nothing about the job.)

As for the eligibility of employees, there are only two kinds of misconduct listed by the Act as barring an employee from participating, but OPM’s telework guide
states that “specific determinations are left to the discretion of agencies and should reflect agreement with standards established in individual agency policies.” An employee’s performance record is also a major factor. Agency implementing regulations I have reviewed require an employee to have received at least a Fully Successful rating, or equivalent, on his/her most recent performance evaluation – and to maintain at least that level once approved to participate in telework.

But even where a position and its incumbent are found suitable for teleworking, there are other issues which must be taken into consideration, such as office
coverage. In many cases, a supervisor can only afford to have a certain number of people working away from the office at one time. For that reason, a very
good manager I work with limits her staff to no more than two days of teleworking per week. And when it comes to office coverage determinations, supervisors must balance requests for telework with existing or requested work schedules, including compressed schedules, such as 4/10s or 5/4/9. Smaller offices often have less scheduling flexibility than larger ones do.

Teleworking is a privilege, not a right; telework requests may be denied and telework agreements may be terminated. OPM’s guidance says that “Denial and termination decisions must be based on operational needs or performance in accordance with the description in the law, not personal reasons.  For example,
a manager may deny a telework arrangement if the duties of the position are not amenable.” The OPM guide goes on to state that “Managers should provide employees (and keep copies of) signed written denials or terminations of telework agreements. These should include information about why the arrangement was denied or terminated…”

At least in the early going, supervisors may be inclined to adopt former President Ronald Reagan’s legendary “Trust but verify” standard. A number of agencies have regulations which allow them to approve telework arrangements on a trial basis, to see how well they work. And, per the statutory language cited in part one, telework must not diminish employee performance or agency operations, so management remains in control, although an employee can challenge a supervisor’s decision to disapprove or cancel a telework agreement. This would be done via agency or collective bargaining agreement (CBA) grievance procedures, depending on the circumstances.

There are also supervisory concerns that employees may use telework to care for children, aging parents, or both. While working from home may make it easier for employees to, for example, take children to and from school and parents to medical appointments, OPM and agency regulations implementing the Act make it clear that teleworking is not a substitute for child or elder care.

Absent “Skype” or other video technology, supervisors are not able to see when a teleworking employee starts or stops working, so I think it’s quite reasonable
to require an employee to send the supervisor an e-mail at the beginning and end of the work day. In addition, a supervisor could ask an employee to document what he/she expects to accomplish on a telework day, and then check to see what was actually accomplished.

When implementing telework schedules, agencies typically strive for a “seamless transition,” a term I first heard at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid
Services (CMS). The idea is that if I choose to telework and am allowed to do so, the fact that I am teleworking should not inconvenience my co-workers, my supervisor, or my customers. Factors contributing to a seamless transition include the ubiquitous availability of e-mail and the ability in many
situations to forward phones from one’s office to one’s home. In some cases, the supervisor and the employee will have to do some “tweaking” of the telework schedule before it is completely satisfactory to both parties.

As employees demonstrate that they can be at least equally effective when teleworking, skeptical supervisors are likely to cut back on some of the controls they implement initially. And it is clearly in the employee’s best interest to satisfy the supervisor’s concerns. In some cases, a supervisor is probably going to ask an employee to do some teleworking, but in the overwhelming majority of instances I believe the employee will initiate the request.

I can offer first-hand testimony as to some of the benefits of a telework schedule. I don’t have to fight traffic on those days; my commute is about 15 steps up to my study. I don’t have to stop at the gas station as often, and I am within (too) easy reach of junk-food. And I am fortunate that good grooming is not required, since I typically start teleworking when I am just back from running and working out – unshowered, unshaven, and in a t-shirt and shorts.  If I were to attend an office meeting in such condition, people would undoubtedly run from the room screaming.

Because I have found teleworking to be so beneficial, I am determined to do whatever it takes to maintain that schedule. That means if I have to go into the office on a scheduled telework day, I do it, without hesitation or complaint. And I make sure that I can easily produce an “audit trail” of what I accomplish on each telework day. It is no more than enlightened self-interest, in that I don’t ever want the supervisor or the organization to wonder if I am as productive teleworking from home as I am when I’m in the office.

If a telework program is properly implemented and administered, the employee gets to work from outside the office to the extent deemed appropriate, and the
supervisor loses nothing from her/his ability to accomplish the mission of the unit. In some cases, the supervisor may actually experience a net gain in productivity.  I’ll cite one such example from my own experience. I supervised staffing specialists, who were often besieged, in person and via phone, by selecting officials checking on the status of their vacancies and by employees and applicants seeking information. In that environment, it was difficult for the staffing specialists to complete such analytical work as evaluating qualifications. One of my employees asked to work from home one day a week so that she would have the necessary “quiet time.”  She quickly demonstrated that the organization reaped benefits as a result of allowing her to work from home on a part-time basis.

Not only can telework be a positive factor in recruiting and retaining employees, it can also be a major contributor to the reasonable accommodation of qualified
employees with disabilities; I see it as particularly beneficial to agencies in their efforts to transition wounded veterans into the civilian workforce. And “situational” telework can be used when employees are recovering from surgery, or from injuries which are non-permanent in nature. Linda Mahoney, a
reader from the Department of Veterans Affairs, provided an excellent example: weakened immunity systems and the need to work from home for several weeks or months to discourage secondary illness from infections more prevalent in a hospital or office situation

If you supervise bargaining unit employees, it is highly likely that you have a collective bargaining agreement which already addresses, or soon will address, the issue
of telework/virtual work. If there is such a CBA article, or telework is addressed elsewhere, such as in a work schedules article, it is likely to contain, among other things, procedures for determining which bargaining unit employee(s) gets to telework on a specific day of the week when more bargaining unit employees have requested that day than can be accommodated. If supervisors and employees – and, where applicable, unions – are willing to cooperate and collaborate with each other, I’m convinced that agency telework programs will benefit both the agency and its employees.

And the next time a monster snowstorm closes down Washington, D.C., I hope and believe that many more Federal employees will have been approved to telework,
saving good chunks of that estimated $100 million per day in lost productivity. And it doesn’t have to be a snowstorm; natural weather events which close Federal offices can come in a variety of forms – witness the havoc Hurricane Irene recently wreaked along a wide swath of the Eastern Seaboard. And there is always the potential for power outages, fires and other disruptive incidents. When offices are closed for any reason, teleworking employees can play a major role in keeping an agency running.

Closing Thoughts: While many employees will likely see benefits to be gained from participating in telework, other employees are not going to be interested, or are faced with circumstances which would preclude them from participating. In most cases, employees will be the “moving party,” meaning that they will be asking supervisors for approval to telework. However, in some cases, supervisors may ask employees to sign a telework agreement, to facilitate the Continuity of Operations in case of emergencies. For those employees, it is important to point out that the Act says employee participation in telework is strictly voluntary.

For all of its actual and potential benefits to agencies and employees, there is the potential for telework to cause morale problems. One example would be the “haves” versus the “have nots,” meaning those employees who request and are approved for telework and those whose requests are disapproved. There is also the potential that employees who are working in the office will feel that they are pulling more than their fair share of the workload when an employee(s) is teleworking. Those are a just a few of the reasons it is important for a supervisor to pay particular attention to morale, as well as productivity, in a telework environment.

If you are a supervisor, I hope you will keep an open mind when an employee requests a telework schedule, and will try to make it work. If you are an employee, I hope you will assist the supervisor by identifying those portions of your job you feel could be performed via telework and that, if your request is approved, you show the supervisor by your performance and attitude that she/he made a good decision.

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.