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Telework in the Federal Government: Benefits and Pitfalls

Over the last two decades, telework has increasingly become an essential element in the federal government’s operations, making it a subject worthy of careful study. As technological capabilities to facilitate effective telework programs have risen, so has its importance as a meaningful tool in the federal service. The permeation of telework into the federal government culminated in the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010, which required all federal agencies to establish telework policies and determine the eligibility for participation for all employees. In order to maximally leverage the potential of telework, government leaders must understand the advantages and disadvantages for both employee and employer, and the interplay between teleworkers and non-teleworkers.

The effective use of technology is and will continue to be a crucial element in the success of telework at the federal level. As the Office of Management and Budget Director Jacob Lew pointed out in a July 15, 2011 memo to agency heads, “telework leverages innovative technologies to allow federal employees to work from any location to improve productivity, assure continuity of operations, and respond to the changing needs of the workforce.” When adequately addressed and effectively used, technology serves as the facilitator for success, providing the means to seamlessly transition employees out of the office and into telework.

The implementation of effective technology is vital to telework success but requires vigilant measures to ensure ongoing information and security protections. The new technologies and necessary security measures require considerable investment, but on the whole the benefits of telework can outweigh the costs of implementation and management for many organizations.

According to the Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM) annual report to Congress for 2012, federal employees who have the option to telework, whether or not they choose to take advantage of it, report increased job satisfaction over those not eligible to telework. The report notes that this increase in satisfaction is often attributed to the greater perceived autonomy for employees who have the option to telework. Increased job satisfaction provides benefits to the organization as well, as it leads to increased employee retention.

Telework has proven to be an attractive offering for recruiting talented, younger employees into the federal service. Vickers Meadows, in Versatile Bureaucracy: A Telework Case Study (2007), writes that these individuals are typically technologically savvy and accustomed to working in casual environments. Telework programs provide a means of catering to these younger workers.

There can also be a greater sense of loyalty and perceived organizational responsibility for those who participate in telework. As Golden and Veiga point out in The Impact of Superior-Subordinate Relationships on the Commitment, Job Satisfaction, and Performance of Virtual Workers (2008), employees who participate in a well-managed telework program tend to, “reciprocate in the exchange relationship by displaying additional effort and dedication to accomplishing work goals and increased loyalty and commitment to the supervisor.”

One of the great strengths of telework from an organizational perspective is the substantial savings in office space that can be realized. The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has been on a multi-year recruitment plan that involves hiring around 1,200 new patent examiners per year. In Federal Telework: A Model for the Private Sector (2007), James Shanks reports that 1,200 new employees would require a space increase equivalent to a ten-story office building, but because of the success of USPTO’s telework program the agency has not had to acquire any new space. In fact, USPTO noted in their 2011 Telework Annual Report that the agency has been able to consolidate nearly 50,000 square feet of space due to the telework program, saving the agency $1.5 million per year. The report further states that telework has been so successful that the agency has been able to avoid leasing “$11 million in additional office space and has developed a more competitive recruitment process…telework now enables the agency to draw from a talent pool of qualified candidates living anywhere in the country.”

Continuity of operations probably represents the strongest argument for telework in the federal workforce, however. Telework can be a vital component in the federal government’s ability to maintain its critical services in an emergency situation, such as a severe weather event, natural disaster, or pandemic. Stanley Kaczmarczyk writes in Telework: Breaking New Ground (2008) that the Department for Health and Human Services predicts that in a severe Influenza pandemic the federal government could experience an absenteeism rate of up to 40 percent. With the ability to work from home, key federal employees will be able to ensure that essential services are not interrupted due to an emergency situation such as this.

Although there are many attractive benefits for telework in the federal government, there are also several challenges. These challenges must be carefully identified and addressed in order to ensure the effectiveness and long-term viability of a telework program.

The issue of professional isolation can be a significant challenge, and one that affects many federal teleworking employees. They feel that their careers may be impeded by teleworking due to reduced organizational visibility. This “out of sight, out of mind” belief contends that if the employee is not in the office, their contributions may not be fully understood or acknowledged by their managers or other agency leaders. Kurland and Cooper, in Manager Control and Employee Isolation in Telecommuting Environments (2001), find there is validity to this concern, as studies have shown that managers are less likely to consider teleworkers for promotions than non-teleworkers.

Social isolation can also be a serious disadvantage of telework. Office-based social interaction is the foundation for developing relationships among employees and can be crucial in cultivating an employee’s sense of affiliation with the organization. In Organizational Identification Among Virtual Workers: the Role of Need for Affiliation and Perceived Work-Based Social Support (2000), Wiesenfeld, Raghuram and Garud find that teleworking employees that feel they have strong social support from their organization tend to have a stronger sense of affiliation with the organization, feel less isolated, and report a greater sense of job satisfaction than those that do not.

Research has shown that there is a curvilinear relationship between the extent of teleworking and job satisfaction. The findings of this research, as reported by Virick, DaSilva and Arrington in Moderators of the Curvilinear Relation between Extent of Telecommuting and Job and Life Satisfaction: The Role of Performance Outcome Orientation and Worker Type (2009), suggest that job satisfaction is highest when an employee is engaged in moderate levels of telework. The ideal teleworking arrangement appears to be one that balances working outside of the office with at least some regular in-office work.

An issue that is not often discussed is the impact of telework programs on the employees left in the office. Non-teleworkers will often acquire increased responsibility in this arrangement, as they must perform work that was previously handled by teleworkers. Timothy Golden, in Co-workers who Telework and the Impact on Those in the Office: Understanding the Implications of Virtual Work for Co-worker Satisfaction and Turnover Intentions (2007), asserts that the impact of this extra work for non-teleworkers can lead to conflict between them and their teleworking colleagues, reduced job satisfaction, and increased turnover.

Telework appears to be a critical piece of the human resource management strategy for the federal government moving forward, and federal agency leaders will need to understand what telework can provide, and how to appropriately leverage this resource in order to maximize its benefits. If used effectively, telework will provide a valuable resource for the federal government well into the foreseeable future.

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Author: Carey Humble is employed within the Economic and Employment Services division of the Kansas Department for Children and Families. He is also a current graduate student within the School of Public Affairs & Administration at the University of Kansas.

 

Image courtesy of http://www.telework.gov/Tools_and_Resources/Training/Employees/SCORM/tr/tr/index01.htm.

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