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Work Away From Work: How It All Works Out

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

By Tosha Wilson-Davis

wilson-davis aprilEmployment in public service agencies, particularly with the federal government doesn’t seem to be the same as it was 20 years ago. From the surge of technological advances and online application processes to the Go Green campaign, the structure of work has changed dramatically. The concept of telework or telecommuting has shifted workers from traveling interstates and expressways to traveling to their home office, which may be two steps away from their bedroom and coffee pot.

Telework, telecommuting and alternative work scheduling are creative ways to boost employee motivation, increase productivity and minimize environmental pollution. According to Mobile Work Exchange, those who participated in Telework Week 2014, held March 3-7, had an overwhelming impact in savings with “a total of 163,973 pledges collectively saved $14,042,766 in commuting costs and spared the environment 9,090 tons of pollutants.” It is also worth mentioning that telework and telecommuting can certainly maximize savings especially in those states where inclement weather, like snow, sleet and ice pileup to flooding rain and mudslides, can be a weekly event. This has been particularly true for even Southern states this winter as weather events in January and February crippled both Atlanta and Charlotte, N.C., which left many motorists stranded after being sent home all at one time to travel the congested interstates. The cleanup efforts for such events can cost states millions of dollars.

Telework is now a part of the federal government and private entities to include the Georgia Department of Human Resources, American Express and educational institutions where online education is ever-so popular. It is a movement and even includes some traditional companies who are participating in creative staffing strategies to retain some of their most valuable talent. For example, companies as diverse as American Airlines, 1-800 FLOWERS and even federal contractors have programs that enable traditional workers to transition to telecommuting or hire workers specifically to work from home part-time or full-time. Telework is simply working in an online or remote environment. Again, this is a creative way to allow employees to work within the comfort of their own home even when there is inclement weather. The organization does not lose revenue and the employees are not placed in compromising positions to drive on dangerous highways or lose a day or week of pay due to the wrath of Mother Nature.

Furthermore, alternative work schedules are defined as “designated hours during which an employee may elect to work in order to complete the employee’s basic (non-overtime) work requirement.” This could mean a 10-hour, 4-day workweek with the option of having Monday or Friday off or a 5-day workweek with half days on Fridays if the employee works 9 hours each day with a 4-hour day on Fridays.

Many may be asking themselves what is all the hoopla surrounding such employment arrangements like telework, telecommuting and alternative work scheduling. First, employees can use their designated day off to spend with children or to schedule a much-needed appointment. This can ultimately cut their day care expenses drastically if they have small children or cut down on the amount of sick leave they use throughout the year. In addition, alternate work schedules and telework promotes that widespread work-life balance that so many employers are advocating these days. Work-life balance produces a nice equilibrium to individual employee’s professional/work life and his or her personal/home life. This is very important to the productivity, quality of work and attitude of the employees. Therefore, utilizing alternative work schedules, telework and telecommuting staffing strategies can help retain the most qualified and effective employees.

With the freedom of telework and telecommuting, there is a substantial amount of responsibility and accountability expected and the ability for employees to persuade their supervisors to trust them to perform just as they would with his or her supervision. In my opinion, this is the most difficult component of telework and alternative work schedules. Of course, management does not want to lose the title and power of supervision. So, how do we find a respectable equilibrium? Employees granted permission to work from home through telework or telecommuting arrangements must demonstrate a high level of accountability, trust and responsibility in getting the job done in a timely manner under limited supervision. These employees must demonstrate excellent time management and organizational skills in the presence of their superiors and must have a proven track record of producing quality work in a timely manner.

With that said, administrators and supervisors should perform a pre-assessment for each employee who is requesting telework and alternative work arrangements. Employees must be willing to conform to the policies and procedures set forth within their respective organizations. To ensure maximum compliance and success of alternative work schedules, administrators and supervisors must conduct continuous training and implement trial or probationary periods for all prospective telework employees to effectively measure the success and/or potential hidden pitfalls of the alternative work schedule programs. According to the Office of Personnel Management, “to have effective telework agreements, managers and subordinates need to have clear expectations of who will be eligible to telework and what activities should be completed while teleworking.  A lack of clear expectations can lead to dissatisfaction with telework on the manager’s behalf and poorer work performance for employees.”

In closing, I would like to make a few suggestions that may warrant the continued improvement and success of telework and telecommuting arrangements. One suggested measure would be to conduct quarterly employee-supervisor sessions so that employees can express any major issues or concerns they may have with the telework arrangement. This could be done via web conferencing or other distance means appropriate to keep in context with the telework theme and may reveal key structural or technical issues. Secondly, the supervisor may find that creating and distributing anonymous surveys or questionnaires may capture valuable employees’ feedback of the program. Collecting such data can demonstrate those employees who may be a misfit for the program and lead to subsequent improvement of any inefficiencies and loopholes of the program. Likewise, this information can simultaneously capture the success of the program and showcase the benefits and intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. Lastly, the supervisor may want to host a site meeting at the work location with all telework employees once a month, which will keep the superior-subordinate relationship and “open door” policy alive.

Whatever the case may be, telework and alternative work arrangements are becoming more and more popular thus transforming the workplace into an innovative home place. If employers effectively implement such alternative work arrangements, they are bound to witness significant benefits which Nigro, Nigro, Kellough outline in their 2007 book, The New Public Personnel Administration as “job satisfaction, decreased need for office space and lessened environmental impacts such as pollution.” Consequently, an increase in productivity and employee motivation leads to a win-win situation for the organization and employees. Training, novelty and program evaluation are all key modules to the success of flexible work programs, and I am anxious to see where such initiatives are headed in the next five years.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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