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It’s the Next Best Thing to Being There

A note for our readers: the views reflected by the authors do not reflect the views of ASPA.

By John Carroll

next best thingTelecommuting, work-sharing, alternative work schedule and working from home – what could be better? In my prior career with a major public safety agency, I would have never thought about those options – except in the context that I was permitted to take work home at night and over the weekends on the usually ridiculous short project suspense dates.

In my current career as an academic, I have the flexibility to be in the office when I need to be and in the classroom when scheduled. Thirty plus years of going to a job is a hard habit to break. Working away from the office takes much self-discipline and attention. There has to be a quiet place to work where one will not be disturbed by the surroundings.

Fortunately, I am able to work year-round outside by the pool on my patio. Before the nasty-grams start pouring into the comment section, I live in the part of the country that groundhog predictions do not matter – South Florida. One has to take advantage of the environment you know.

When we talk about these various options for working, we should probably first ask what we are trying to accomplish. Are we trying to make employees a happier lot by changing the routine? Are we looking to reduce the inevitable rush hour grind in the morning and afternoon hours of our metropolitan areas by removing some folks from that mix? Are we trying to be more efficient and save money?

Are we exploring this as the latest flavor of the month to show how forward thinking we are in the workplace? Remember “flattening the organization” to be more agile? We got rid of a layer and doled out the responsibilities to other very busy managers. So much for that idea.

Let’s say it is a little bit of all of those. In the private sector, it should be a fairly easy proposition – it’s your business, you run it the way you see fit. The same can be said with nonprofits – it is up to the board and executive directors, based on what they do. What about the public sector? Not so fast. Which public sector?

There are 89,000+/- units of government in the Unites States representing our vast system of federalism. My personal experiences come from local government. Most of those services and their employees are in public safety and education. We can hardly offer telecommuting to the hundreds of thousands of police officers, firefighters and teachers – for obvious reasons.

The same can be said for the local governments that elect to provide public hospitals/health clinics, utilities, refuse collection, social services and the like. In law enforcement, we experimented with a number of schedules – mostly to the benefit of the employee. We still had to ensure enough staff to cover the needs of around the clock service.

All of these options, while interesting, do not appear to be on the radar screen for the public – this appears to be an internal discussion in government circles. I think that when a member of the public calls 9-1-1, the work arrangement of the first responders is not at the forefront of the caller. Each agency can probably identify positions in supporting roles that might benefit from work schedule options.

Leaders have to make the decision about who has to be at work to provide the service to the community and who can stay home or change schedules. If the employees and their work can stay home, do we really need them or would it be more efficient to contract that function out?

However, alternative work options seem to be catching on with functions in the federal government, particularly around the busy Washington, D.C. region. An immediate family member of mine takes advantage of this arrangement with his federal position and it seems to works well for him and his agency. Is the decision based along “essential” and “non-essential” positions?

I have a bit of a snarky observation in that regard. For two weeks in October 2013, the federal government “shut down” all but essential services. We were treated to rallies by federal workers (with protest signs no less) in Washington, D.C., trying to convince us that they too were “essential,” and deserved to be back at work. Congress simply failed in its most basic function and I do not begrudge working people missing their paychecks through no fault of their own.

Winter 2013-2014 was an especially harsh one throughout most of the nation, including the greater D.C. area. It seemed like every time it snowed more than 2 inches, the federal government shut down all but essential services. After those storms, none of those protest signs or employee rallies was anywhere to be found. Was it the snowy weather or being paid to stay at home that made it all right? I wonder what then is truly essential.

I hark back to my youth and remember the old Bell telephone advertisement that used to say, “Long distance, it’s the next best thing to being there.” The folks at Bell were telling us that we should pick up the telephone if we cannot be there in person (at long distance rates of course). So many years later, technology enables us to consider options for working.

It took me more than 30 years to be able to have work schedule options. I can run an online class or write articles from virtually anywhere, which is definitely the next best thing to being there. I still have to be on campus for the face-to-face sessions. This brings me back to my original premise. What are we trying to accomplish and toward what end? If we can answer those reasonably, then we can consider which options and where to apply them.

 

Author: John J. Carroll, Ph.D., M.P.A., is an Assistant Professor for Public Administration, Huizenga School of Business & Entrepreneurship, Nova Southeastern University, Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Prior to joining academia, he served in the public sector for more than 30 years.

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