US govt heads don’t fully support teleworking

A survey of senior managers at US government departments shows mixed feelings towards remote working

Just 35% of US government managers believe their agencies support telecommuting, despite a seven-year-old law requiring agencies to offer telework options to workers, according to a recent study.

The study shows that federal agencies and managers still need to be convinced of the value of telecommuting, says Joel Brunson, president of Tandberg Federal, a video-conferencing software and services vendor that helped fund the survey. Sixty-one percent of federal managers surveyed said they have misinterpreted co-workers when communicating by email, and 43% have misinterpreted phone conversations, according to the survey.

Thirty-two percent of managers said the lack of face-to-face communication is a telework challenge. “The big thing the survey showed was that there is a real inertia among federal managers and the agencies to endorse teleworking,” he says.

The US Congress passed a law in 2000 requiring federal agencies to offer telecommuting as an option to many employees. Advocates of telework say it can provide government agencies with several benefits, including a way to remotely continue operations during a natural disaster or terrorist attack. Telecommuting could also ease the Washington DC area’s traffic problems, reduce pollution and increase worker productivity, advocates say.

Although many agencies seem to see organisational benefits from telecommuting, there’s a “misalignment” between agency views and manager views, Brunson says. In addition to continuity of operations, agencies see telework as a way to recruit workers, he says.

But managers see mostly benefits to employees, he says. Seventy-four percent of federal managers who do not manage teleworkers said a better work/life balance was the top driver for telework, while only 32% see continuity of operations as the top reason.

“Maybe we need to do a better job of educating the managers on how ... telework helps the agency,” Brunson says.

Fear of not having control over employees’ activities was the biggest concern from managers who do not manage teleworkers, while productivity concerns were the largest among managers who do manage

teleworkers.

Those fears are understandable, Brunson says, but many companies use performance metrics to track teleworker production, and several studies have suggested that teleworkers are more productive than their in-office counterparts.

“Telework is not a substitute for a face-to-face meeting,” he says. “But there’s a lot of technology out there that will allow you to collaborate on face-to-face communications, spreadsheets and whatever you’re working on.”

While 35% of the 214 US agency managers surveyed said they believe their agencies support telework, 18% were unsure and 47% said they don’t believe that’s the case. In May, the US Government Accountability Office released a report saying only nine of 23 agencies surveyed reported they had plans in place for essential workers to telecommute.

The survey also found that support for telecommuting grew the more a manager was involved with it. Only 54% of managers who do not manage teleworkers had a favourable impression of telecommuting, while 63% of managers who do manage teleworkers were favourable and 75% of mangers who are teleworkers were favourable.

The survey was commissioned by Telework Exchange, a public and private partnership focused on government telecommuting, and the Federal Managers Association, an organisation representing US government managers.

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