Telework Experts Say Employers Can Manage Sight Unseen

News Updates

They called it Snowmageddon.

In February of 2010, in Washington, D.C., snow fell for nearly a week, crippling the nation’s capital and its surrounding suburbs. Roads were impassable. Schools were closed. Many were snowed in.

But work—particularly for some in the federal government—continued uninterrupted; attributable largely in part to telework.

Many agencies and companies had implemented telework programs as part of their business continuity plans, providing a valuable lesson for those in HR who might be reluctant to initiate telework options. Work can continue—even when people aren’t being supervised. But how do you move from concept to reality?

Managing Sight Unseen

“HR is there to foster that dialogue,” Jennifer McCarthy, a member of the Society for Human Resource Management and deputy director of HR at the Department of Justice, said during a session at the Telework Exchange’s Fall 2010 Town Hall Meeting, held in Washington, D.C., Oct. 7, 2010.

McCarthy’s agency established its telework program in 2005, but in 2009 it increased participation by 100 percent because “our workload doubled in seven months.”

She said her agency used telework as a “tool to assist the office in awarding $2.7 billion in [federal stimulus] funds over seven months” without adding additional positions.

Having employees able to work remotely increased greatly their ability to get the work done.
Yet, there is still resistance to telework—even though, experts say, most teleworkers use their time efficiently.

“On average, teleworkers are 15 to 20 percent more productive than their counterparts in the office, and this data is consistent across the board with companies we’ve seen,” said Robin Mack, chief executive officer of Mack Global Consulting, which helps companies institute telework plans.

If that’s true, why hasn’t telework been adopted more widely?

Experts say it’s because some managers aren’t comfortable with managing employees they can’t physically see.

“The key point to dealing with management resistance is to provide data to executive-level management so they can provide an accurate decision on how to move forward with teleworking,” Mack said.

The benefits are many.

Telework cuts down on commuting costs and time. A recent study by the Telework Exchange showed that the typical federal employee spends $138 on fuel costs per month, yet by teleworking the average savings is $55 per month.

Flexibility aids productivity. McCarthy said that in addition to allowing employees to telework, her firm instituted a flexible work program by expanding workdays from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.

“So we really opened the flexibility about our policy and provided a solution,” she said, adding that employers should give employees “the tools that make sense for the business environment instead of HR.”

Get HR Onboard

For any telework program to work, “it’s critical to have a champion in HR,” McCarthy said. “Once [telework] is established … HR should “move to a consultant role,” she said. HR should “break down the barriers to why a manager thinks someone shouldn’t telework.”

Change is inevitable, said Tony Bardo, assistant vice president of government markets, North American Division for Hughes Network Systems. “Telework is here to stay, and it’s here to grow. Workers will be moving in an increasing basis from their office locations to home.”

Bardo and telework advocates, which include HR professionals, government officials, computer engineers, consultants and rank-and-file employees living in congested areas the world over, said that as technology and security improves and laws encouraging telework expand, the only thing standing in the way of telework is the perception that you can’t manage what you can’t see.

People should realize that “telework just means doing work at different locations,” Diane Grady, a telework consultant, said during the Telework Exchange Town Hall Meeting. “But it will require different adjustments.”

In the past those adjustments have come because institutions put telework in place as a means of saving overhead costs or business continuity or to handle an emergency.

When the blizzard struck the Washington, D.C., region, forcing the federal government to close for a record six days, officials estimated the amount of lost productivity during the storm was $100 million daily. However, that number doesn’t account for the one-third of federal workers who worked remotely.

Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry told Federal News Radio that, despite closures, teleworking employees kept the government operating.

“This is a watershed moment,” Berry said. “If there is a silver lining in the storm of 2010, it is that this will be the moment, I predict, for all managers and every agency to recognize the criticality of telework to maintaining their functionality and their operations.”

Perhaps that is the impetus behind the federal government’s transformation on telework policy. On Sept. 29, 2010, the Senate passed the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010, which calls on agencies to establish telework policies and designate a telework managing officer.

Under the proposed legislation, federal agencies would be required to develop policies allowing all employees to work remotely unless their positions are specifically excluded. Telework would become part of an agency's contingency plan. 

Before implementing a telework plan, experts said, HR should:

  • Identify the positions that are eligible for telework.
  • Come up with standard operating procedure for establishing a telework program so individuals and managers know exactly what to expect.
  • Supply communication and training for employees and supervisors.
  • Make sure that IT can support and can equip teleworkers by expanding the technological environment to include video teleconferencing and virtual meetings.
  • Have the resources, hardware, programs and other technologies that facilitate telework.
  • Have a way to assess productivity—there must be deliverables.
  • Get manager feedback on productivity.
  • Note any cost savings as well as time and attendance and system access reporting.
  • Conduct tests.

Aliah D. Wright is an online editor/manager for SHRM.