State Department Joins the Telecommuting Movement


Telework option for foreign service officers’ families in pilot phase

Employers’ increased acceptance of telecommuting and flexible schedules is redefining the workweek.

“Workers want more flexibility in their schedules, and with improvements in technology that enable employees to check in at any time, from anywhere, it makes sense to allow employees to work outside the traditional nine-to-five schedule,” said Rosemary Haefner, CareerBuilder’s chief human resources officer, in a statement.

Telecommuting specifically has grown in popularity over the past five years, according to the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2015 Employee Benefits research report. Sixty percent of surveyed employers offered it as an option in 2015, up from 53 percent in 2011; additionally, 56 percent of employers said they permitted telecommuting on an ad hoc basis in 2015, up sharply from 42 percent in 2011, according to the report.

These trends are playing an important role in Sandy Robinson’s latest endeavor as a senior foreign service officer with the U.S. Department of State. Robinson wants to connect HR professionals and recruiters with the thousands of family members of U.S. foreign service workers—many of whom need a job of their own, but also need a little flexibility to pull it off.

“We are in a unique situation, our family members are all over the world,” Robinson said. “They have all kinds of challenges with working in their local economy. They might not speak the language, and if they do, they still might not be able get the work permit. And if they get the work permit, many times the wages aren’t good compared with what they would earn in the United States.”

In the last five to 10 years, Robinson said, she has watched as telework has gone from “a creative way to do work” to a mainstream approach for U.S. businesses and government agencies. In many cases, she says, employers’ teams are spread across several locations in the United States, and business continuity is not interrupted by the fact that many workers are doing their jobs from their homes.

“There are so many improved tools,” she said. “You can use Skype, you can use FaceTime, and there are other conferencing tools that make it possible to have face-to-face conversations. I thought to myself, if we can find the employers that are already receptive to this idea and connect them with our family members who can telework, we’ll be successful.”

Robinson started by conducting a survey in early 2015 among foreign service workers’ family members. It was sent to about 15,000 people, the majority of whom were living abroad, and others who were in the United States and waiting on their family member’s next assignment.

She received more than 1,900 responses that yielded some surprising results. More than three out of five (64 percent) who were seeking employment were interested in teleworking, and 13 percent of those already employed were working all of their hours remotely.

Robinson also learned that 52 percent of foreign service family members hold advanced degrees, and skill sets among the survey’s respondents included business management, information technology, communications, health care and various liberal arts pursuits.

The survey group included relatives of workers from several federal agencies, including commerce, agriculture, justice, state, homeland security and defense, Robinson said.

“We have CPAs [certified public accountants], lawyers, lots of MBAs [Master of Business Administrations] and linguists,” Robinson said. “We even have a geologist and a veterinarian. We are not one flavor, for sure.”

Robinson then looked to social media giant LinkedIn and created a group through the State Department’s Family Liaison Office (FLO). The group, called the FLO Telework Connection, is in the pilot phase at the moment and has roughly 250 members. However, based on the interest indicated from the survey she ran, Robinson estimates there is the potential for about 4,000 members at full strength.

“We realize for now that employers might not want to join the group until we have a larger base of people,” she said. “But for smaller employers, who might only need one person, we think we can help people right away.”

Given the global nature of the U.S. economy, Robinson said there is a clear need for employers to find overseas talent. In an ideal situation, family members of foreign service employees will telework while they are living out of the country and perhaps transition to an in-office job when they return to the United States.

The FLO effort is targeting companies in the Washington, D.C., area to start, since many foreign service members settle down in that region, but Robinson said she also wants to start a dialogue with Fortune 500 companies located around the country that also maintain sizable foreign operations.

“We have so many talented people working for the foreign service, but we also have many talented family members sitting around and twiddling their thumbs,” she said. “The State Department sees this as the No. 1 morale issue for our workers. Nobody is happy if their family members are sitting home doing nothing and getting frustrated. This really matters.”

The State Department already has about 100 family members of foreign service employees who work remotely around the world, Robinson said, “so we know this works on an individual basis.” The formal program will make telework an option for a broader segment of these families.

“These people are adaptable, they’re creative and they have an international perspective that you can only get from living abroad,” Robinson said. “We’ve made a lot of progress, but this is where the rubber meets the road. We need to connect employers with workers.”

Joseph Coombs is a senior analyst for workforce trends at SHRM.

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