Pressure on Managers to Allow Telework Could Backfire

Telework will suffer if some go in half-heartedly.

Telework is expanding across the federal government, according to figures released last week by the Office of Personnel Management. But one of the remaining challenges for federal telework – the reluctance of managers to buy into the concept – could be a major vulnerability for telework going forward, one expert said Tuesday.

John Palguta, vice president for policy at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, noted that while he was pleasantly surprised that the number of federal teleworkers has more than doubled since the 2010 Telework Enhancement Act was passed, there is one potential challenge that could jeopardize federal telework going forward.

“My fear would be that some managers will be pressured into buying into telework,” Palguta said. “But they won’t do what a good manager needs to do – lay out expectations, set performance standards and make sure employees know telework is not an entitlement.”

Palguta said the lack of oversight by federal managers could lead to telework getting a bad rap, with some employees abusing the benefit or others simply not being held accountable for results while teleworking. “It would result in an unsuccessful telework situation,” he said. “That’s not a reason to not continue useful teleworking. It means that as we are supposed to hold employees accountable for telework, we have to hold managers accountable for assuring that teleworking employees are getting the job done.”

Meanwhile, OPM also reported that only one in four employees who are eligible to telework are actually doing so. Palguta said that telework may not be for everyone who is eligible, including those who need a structured office situation or others who have small children at home and need to get away from their homes to concentrate.

Palguta, who was part of one of the government’s first teleworking experiments during his tenure as director of policy evaluation at the Merit Systems Protection Board, said that it was always made clear to employees at MSPB that telework was an earned right that could be revoked if results were not being achieved.

“The hard part was in letting some folks know that it’s not working out,” he said. “But just as every job is not necessarily a good telework candidate, not every employee is a good candidate. I would be very surprised if we found every employee in every job that was designated as telework-eligible actually teleworked. Maybe we can do better than 1 out of 4, but not 4 out of 4, and for good reason.”

There’s a silver lining to all of the potential challenges to telework cited in OPM’s report, however, Palguta said. The most recent Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey found that teleworking employees are more likely than non-teleworkers to report that they knew what was expected of them on the job. “Teleworking employees say they are being held accountable for results,” he said. “If we look at telework as a useful management tool, this report suggests that we may be on our way to demonstrating that and making use of that.”