Federal telework – obstacles and opportunities

Typing Pool

On average, federal offices are occupied less than half the time and only 70% are occupied during peak hours.

For a mobile workforce, management styles that were born in the days of sweatshops and typing pools don’t work at best, and sabotage success at worst.

But, despite over ten years of increasingly explicit legislation that encouraged and now requires telework, less than 8% of federal employees are part of a formal telework program or do so with any regularity.

To find out why, we surveyed hundreds of federal managers and executives involved with telework planning and implementation. What we found was interesting and sometimes startling.

The biggest barrier is cultural, nor surprise that–it is in the private sector, too. Managers need to learn how to manage by results, not by head count. Perfect attendance was good in grammar school, but in today’s workplace, where it’s called presenteeism, that’s not what counts.

Beyond that, federal telework managers say they desperately need better training, and better access to collaboration tools such as videoconferencing.

While 47% of federal employees were considered eligible in 2013, and less than 8% did so once a week or more.

How do federal numbers compare to the private sector? Here’s how telework grew (or shrank) from 2006 to 2012

  • Private sector for-profit: +46.1%
  • Not-for-profit: +36.2%
  • State government: +47.4%
  • Local government +60.4%
  • Federal government: -2.4%

If all those who were eligible in 2013 (47%) and who wanted to telework (87%) did so at the same 2-day-per-week average as existing government teleworkers, the federal government could have saved over $10 billion a year and reduced greenhouse gases by the equivalent of planting 21 million trees a year.

In the District of Columbia, 28% of federal employees are extreme commuters who commute over 90 minutes each way. By teleworking they could save 22 eight-hour days a year they’re now wasting on the road. They’d also save as much as $6,600 a year in commuting and other expenses (even when extra home energy costs are figured in).

What’s the obstacle to telework? Mainly middle management resistance—72% of those surveyed report it had a moderate or greater impact. Sixty-five percent say it’s a cultural issue—government managers don’t know how to manage by results. Insufficient access to technology was an obstacle according to half of the respondents.

The solution? Training in results-based management, greater accountability, and better access to collaboration tools. Nearly 90% of the survey respondents said easier online file access, collaboration tools, and access to video conferencing would make a ‘difference’, ‘likely help’ or ‘definitely help’.

Over 60% of the respondents felt that providing a budget specifically for telework training and technology would ‘likely’ or ‘definitely’ help. And another 25% said it ‘might’ make a difference. The need for results-based management training tied with culture change training for the highest ‘very important’ ratings. Manager training was rated ‘very important’ or ‘important’ by nearly 100% of respondents.

Quotable quotes from survey write-in comments:

“When it comes down to a choice between buildings and people, it’s the people that matter—they’re the productive assets.”

“Technology helps. Even just being able to see one another’s availability on chat, was a big help.”

“Telework opens the door on many topics. It’s not a silo topic. Mobility is in everything we do and as such should be integrated with other policies and organizational goals.”

“The distinctions between mobile work and telework are sometimes polarizing. It ought to be just work.”

“One of the side benefits of telework is that it forces you to get comfortable with technology tools that can make you more effective when you are in the office too.”

“We are living in an increasing global and mobile world. It would be a rare employee who doesn’t at least occasionally work away from their desk or collaborate with others using technology.”

“There is not enough time for innovation in government. Much of the daily work in government is simply keeping the fires from being too bright. There’s always a new priority.”

“I think the conversation on telework and mobility is important because it opens the door on other conversations the government is too afraid to have. For example, it forces conversation on:


Special treatment

Degree of Trust between managers and employees

Management through line of sight vs. outcomes

Identifying and communicating actionable outcomes”