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The War on Telework

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By Bill Powers September 17, 2015

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Bill Powers is a PhD, policy guru, author and lecturer. 

The ongoing management “War on Telework” has flared up yet again, according to a General Services Administration inspector general report, completed for 2013-2014. This time, the IG’s mortar fire was directed at 454 names in the master list of virtual employees (full-time teleworkers) on the GSA’s Office of Human Resources Management whose arrangements had never been approved along with other procedural auditing issues.

The timing of this attack is curious and parallels another strafing against teleworkers at the Patent and Trademark Office by the IG’s office for the same time period (2013) in which an anonymous complaint alleged systemic time and attendance abuse by USPTO patent examiners participating in the telework and hoteling programs.

And if those two were not enough bad press, it was accompanied again by another IG smear attack upon the USPTO for a patent examiner who was paid for telework that was allegedly not done.

Coincidental Press Exuberance or Calculated Attacks?

If it were not for common knowledge among experienced researchers about the overarching management resistance to telework as, for example, described by the 2013 Office of Personnel Management report on the status of telework in the federal government, one might be tempted to think these were coincidental and something had gone terribly awry at the GSA and USPTO.  

The truth is, however, management reluctance against the use of telework has been around for decades, since Jack Nilles invented the program in the ‘70s. These archaic attitudes have perpetuated and perhaps have even resulted in slow-walking the adoption of federal telework practices despite the fact that telework has been steadily gaining in reputation, applications and momentum for the past four decades both in industry and government.

Apparently, the resistant attitude has remained, and so the war on telework continues. Apparently, management cannot seem to get used to nontraditional work norms that diminishes their authority, control and autonomy far too much for their own comfort.

Curiously, or perhaps not so coincidentally, control, flexibility and autonomy over their own lives is also what experienced teleworkers say what they like most about telework! The term virtual workers used by the IG may be quite telling about this loss of control (fueling the War on Telework) and distrust in a teleworker workforce often viewed by managers as workers who are not real because they are not present or visible enough so they can be as easily or readily seen or controlled.

Why Has Telework Continued to Grow Despite Management Resistance?

While telework is neither a work venue for all types of employees and all sectors, it is not without problems.  Yet, technology, economics and ability to deliver higher levels of well-being, autonomy and flexibility have been found to outweigh its challenges as evidenced in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Surveys.

These benefits have not been confined to the teleworker. Employer benefits have also tipped the scales in favor of teleworking over the decades and promise to deliver and yield significant and substantial more benefits in the future, which may explain why employees in more than half of U.S. companies participate, in some form of telework practice.  

In general, employers report teleworkers are more cooperative, helpful, punctual and less prone to turnover – a key driver on the war for talent and succession planning. All of that said, despite four decades of progress and steady growth worldwide, telework is still in its infancy.

Less than 10 percent of eligible federal workers in cabinet-level agencies telework and most who do telework do so, on average only two days per pay period. Additionally, most of the telework in federal agencies is still in experimental stages in pilot programs where challenges are being discovered, confronted and worked through.

Global Workplace Analytics in 2013 estimated the expansion of telework for federal employees has the potential to save $14 billion annually when factoring the financial impact on real estate, commuting costs, employee productivity, turnover, health benefits and other resources.  While full-time telework has not yet been as well justified, part-time teleworking has been found so far to allow for a work-life equation more in balance than traditional office work venues.

What then should we make of this apparent war on telework? Perhaps it’s just another of many small skirmishes and slow-walking tactical plays over who should have greater autonomy – teleworkers or managers?  

(Image via A. and I. Kruk/Shutterstock.com)

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