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Panelists: Telework can improve management

The right ambiance can elevate a mediocre restaurant, but it doesn't do much for poor job performance, according to federal managers during a Monday discussion on telework.

Comment on this article in The Forum.It's no secret that supervisors are skittish about their employees working outside the office. But convincing them that productivity isn't tied to physical setting is key to boosting the reputation of telecommuting in government, said participants in the Telework Exchange's town hall meeting earlier this week in Washington. The group is a public-private partnership focused on promoting the benefits of telework.

"Somehow I think we have to get away from this view that you have a different way of measuring people when they're teleworking than when they're at a work site," said Jack Penkoske, director of manpower, personnel and security at the Defense Information Systems Agency. "Your superstars are going to be superstars no matter what environment you put them in."

Lurita A. Doan, head of the General Services Administration, agreed. "Telework gives government a chance to prove that performance matters, and it's not the physical presence of an employee in the workplace that matters," she said.

According to Penkoske, managers have to shift their focus from demanding an employee's physical presence to the more important task of ensuring accountability. "In a lot of cases, [managers] say they don't feel comfortable not knowing what the employee is doing," he said. "So we say, how do you know what they're doing in their office all day? It really focuses on, what are the responsibilities of holding people accountable."

Vice Adm. Thomas Barrett, deputy secretary of the Transportation Department, said he puts the onus on managers to make the practice more accessible and to justify why an employee isn't eligible to telework.

Penkoske, however, said managers shouldn't be blamed for being skeptical of telework. It's important for agencies to train their employees to understand what's expected of them whether they work at home or at telework centers, he noted.

Danette Campbell, senior adviser for telework at the Patent and Trademark Office, reminded participants that telework was not the solution for all employees or all jobs, and agencies should set realistic goals.

"While I think telework is the greatest thing since sliced bread, it's not for everybody," she said. "To establish a goal of 100 percent telework -- that's unrealistic."

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