Dialing Up Telework

Agencies face complex steps in rolling out remote work agreements and training.

Federal agencies are racing toward a deadline to get broad telework programs up and running and must develop detailed guidance on working remotely. This could be tricky because when it comes to preparing managers and employees for the expectations of telework, observers say government still has a ways to go.

There's little room for failure. In a December 2010 executive order, President Obama gave agencies until June to establish a policy on working outside the office, identify eligible employees and inform them of the option. The law also requires leaders to name an official to oversee telework programs and to incorporate the policy into plans for continuing essential services during natural disasters or other emergencies.

Agencies are required to develop written agreements that outline telework terms and conditions with authorized employees. Some have established telework programs and have contracts in place, while others are just beginning to identify eligible employees and face a steep learning curve, says Adam Cole, director of government practice at the Corporate Executive Board.

The Defense Information Systems Agency has a standard telework agreement and an automated process through which employees request flexible work arrangements, either on an ad hoc or a recurring basis. Aaron Glover, special assistant to the director of manpower, personnel and security at DISA, says the requirements are the same for most eligible employees. For example, teleworkers pledge not to take classified data outside the office, to complete time and attendance forms, and to work exclusively on government-furnished laptops. DISA employees who telework also are required to work during government closures due to inclement weather, Glover adds.

But observers agree a one-size-fits-all approach might not be appropriate because telework, by its very nature, is meant to be flexible. Consequently, employees who handle classified information or who work on team projects likely will have to include specific provisions in their contracts outlining conditions and restrictions. Standard agreements can be customized based on an employee's category or level, observers say.

Developing a contract is key because it lets both managers and employees know exactly what is expected on telework days, says Paul Rowson, managing director at human resources association WorldatWork. A good telework agreement includes performance metrics and defines how outcomes will be measured, lists when and for what reasons employees will be required to be in the office, and outlines an exit strategy that allows either the manager or employee to terminate the agreement when the work landscape changes, he says.

According to Cole, telework contracts also should lay out guidelines for setting up teleworkers' workspace and define the cadence of interactions with their managers and co-workers, including the hours they are expected to be available and how often they should check in. Communication is one of the most important aspects of telework arrangements, Cole notes.

"The communication piece is very, very critical," says Rowson. "For example, [when] a manager can't reach an employee when they need them, and in the meantime, they're dwelling on why not. At the same time, he notes, "an employee feels like no one told them about something and they're not part of the conversation." This is where agreements "break down in spirit," Rowson says, and mistrust develops.

Effective communication should be a key part of managers' telework training, experts agree.

Communication is easily compromised when employees work remotely, so managers must be more deliberate with tools they already use, Cole says. He notes, for example, that learning to write e-mails to convey detailed project guidance and the correct sense of urgency can limit misunderstandings between employees and managers, as can regularly scheduled opportunities for feedback.

Manager training is likely to be the toughest challenge in rolling out telework programs, but both agency leaders and observers agree it's a critical step in the process.

"The key to our success has been providing training to all our managers in regard to teleworking--how you manage the remote workforce [and] communication with the employee and make sure expectations are identified so everybody knows what's going to be expected while the employee is teleworking," Glover says. "We also had separate training sessions to make sure the employees knew what their roles and responsibilities are within the telework arena."

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