It is hard to believe that it has been over 6 months since the COVID-19 pandemic upended life here in the United States. Since then, we have all had to endure many changes to our normal routines. During the height of the pandemic, businesses were classified as either essential or non-essential. All essential businesses could remain open, but any non-essential businesses were forced to close their doors. The results proved to be catastrophic for many small businesses and restaurants, and unemployment claims across the country skyrocketed. Those who were fortunate enough to keep their jobs through all the uncertainty, faced a new challenge: teleworking. Amid all the concern surrounding COVID-19, many people had to work from home for the first time in their careers. They also had to balance other priorities, such as children learning virtually and taking care of elderly family members.
As the pandemic continues, major companies like Facebook, Twitter and Zillow, have decided to allow their employees to work from home indefinitely. With numbers continuing to rise as another potential wave threatens the U.S., many other companies have pushed out when employees will return to the office. How does this affect the public sector, who historically, has struggled with teleworking?
Considering all these factors, will telework become the new normal? Can managers see the benefits it can bring to both their agency and employees and can they properly manage them to stay productive?
What is Telework?
According to the Telework Enhancement Act, “‘telework' or ‘teleworking’ refers to a work flexibility arrangement under which an employee performs the duties and responsibilities of such employee’s position, and other authorized activities, from an approved worksite other than the location from which the employee would otherwise work.” Teleworking and remote working are synonymous in the sense that employees are both working from home. The key difference is that telework specifically refers to federal agencies and employees. In 2010, President Barack Obama signed the Telework Enhancement Act which is an act that, “requires each Executive agency to establish a policy under which eligible employees are authorized to telework.” Each agency is required to have a Telework Managing Officer (TMO) to help set the expectations and develop telework programs.
Telework Eligibility & Participation
After the Telework Enhancement Act was passed in 2010, all federal agencies were required to have a telework policy in place; however, not all employees are eligible to participate. Telework eligibility determinations are left up to each individual agency. This is purposefully done, so it does not interfere with employee performance or agency operations. The Telework Enhancement Act does not specify eligibility standards, but it does call out who cannot be eligible. It is important to note that agencies state teleworking is currently more of a privilege and not a guaranteed ‘right.’ It all comes down to performance, job duties, and if the employee complies with the telework agreement. According to the Status of Telework in the Federal Government report released in March 2020 for fiscal year 2018, participation in telework has leveled out. In the graph below, 51% of eligible telework employees do in fact work from home. However, only 22% of all federal employees participate in teleworking. Just for reference, in 2018 there were over 2.1 million federal employees. That means that less than 500,000 employees were eligible to participate in telecommuting.
To compare, a PEW research study found that 9.8 million, or about 7% of the U.S. civilian workforce, had access to a flexible work environment. During COVID-19, those numbers have gone up drastically in both the private and public sector. In March 2020, President Donald Trump urged all federal agencies to exercise maximum telework policies for all eligible employees. In total, about 42% of the current U.S. labor force is working from home during COVID-19 at the time of this writing.
Benefits of Teleworking
COVID-19 is the biggest test for teleworking our country has seen yet. Both the private and public sector had to dust off or jumpstart their telework policies due to the pandemic. With the big shift from working at the office to working remotely at home, there are many benefits for both federal agencies and their employees. For federal agencies, teleworking can increase productivity and increase employee engagement and satisfaction. According to a study done by Stanford of 16,000 workers, working from home increased their productivity by 13% over a 9-month period. It can also improve retention, grants the ability to hire more skilled & diverse employees by reaching a wider geography, and reduces overhead costs.
For employees, there are also many benefits to having an alternative worksite. Employees can enjoy flextime to be able to attend to personal needs and pick their start and end time. Some agencies may require core times, meaning employees have to be available and working during this time, like 9AM-3PM. As mentioned above, it can also increase productivity because there are no distractions. Teleworking also has impressive stats on the overall health & wellbeing, as well as, job satisfaction for employees. 80% of teleworkers experience less job stress, which increases job satisfaction and overall health. Another benefit is saving time and money on their commute. This enables employees to have a more flexible schedule. Plus, all that time spent on lengthy commutes to and from the office is now the employee’s time to use as they see fit. Study after study have shown many downsides to long commutes including obesity, neck pain, divorce, and stress.
Challenges of Teleworking
Of course, like anything there are obstacles that come with teleworking. Historically, there have been many studies that show employees are more productive at home. However, given the current pandemic there could be a lot of distractions working remotely. Parents have their school-aged children home with remote learning, and others are the caretaker for older family members. These are just a few distractions that could impede work productivity. Learn what your distractors are and combat it with your enablers. Another challenge is not having a designated work space. If employers can supply the correct equipment, such as an ergonomic desk chair and a monitor, it can greatly improve an employee's work experience at home. In a Q&A regarding telework and the public sector, Neil Reichenberg, former Executive Director of IMPA-HR, elaborates more and says that, “one is the whole issue of ergonomics. Do employees who are working from home have the right equipment? Do they have comfortable chairs like they might have had in an office, or are we as organizations or governments going to provide those for them?”
Another challenge of remote working is communication amongst the team and the feeling of isolation. One easy way to combat that is by setting a cadence for video calls and trying to connect with your team for non-work activities, such as virtual happy hours. Overworking and employee burnout are also significant challenges telecommuters face, as they can work longer without breaks and there is no clear separation between home and the office. If they’re at home, they’re at work, at least in many people’s minds. It is important as a manager and employee to take breaks throughout the day and track how long you are working. One of the benefits of getting time back in your day by not having a commute, can quickly turn into a stressor as many employees take advantage of that time to start their workday earlier and end later.
Best Practices: How to Manage Teleworkers
As a manager of teleworkers, it is important to set up your employees for success. This is even more important during COVID-19, as employees are coping with what is going on in the world. It is important to do so by being transparent with expectations and goals. Build a trusting environment with your teleworkers, do not micro-manage them. Micro-managing shows that you do not trust them. Instead, provide clear metrics and goals for your employees and measure their performance based on if they are meeting those goals. Similarly, you want to manage by results, not physical presence. So many employees are worried about their status saying ‘away,’ because they don’t want their managers to think they are not working. Reinforce with your employees that you are measuring on results and as long as their deadlines are being met, they don’t always need to be ‘available.’ If you’re hiring during the pandemic, this is even more important. Clear and honest communication, as mentioned above is key with new teleworkers. As some teleworkers take on working from home for the first time, it is important to ask questions to help them thrive in their new way of working.
Best Practices for New Teleworkers
As important as it is for the agency to set employees up for success while telecommuting, it is just as important that new teleworkers have their own schedule and standards. One best practice of remote working is to have a schedule and stick to it. It is important to try and wake up at the same time each day and have a routine, such as getting ready, eating breakfast, and any other tasks you would normally do in the morning to prep for work. Along the same line as a schedule, make sure you pick a start and end time for yourself. If you are a morning person, start your day earlier and end a little earlier. As mentioned above, it is also important you set yourself up with a dedicated workspace. This helps with work productivity and allows you to separate home from work. Some people even feel dressing more professionally can boost their productivity and engagement. For more information on best practices, take a look at some of our remote work resources here.
Teleworking: Is It the Future of Work?
As previously mentioned, prior to COVID-19 a lot of agencies were not thrilled at the idea of teleworking. They didn’t think that their employees could be nearly as productive as they are in the office. In an interview with one of the top senior officials at Homeland Security, Bill Bryan, he talks about all the benefits of telework. He mentioned how he was a skeptic of telework, but he has seen first-hand how productivity has gone up. Homeland Security is even looking to implement a 50% minimum telework policy. Bill mentions that he is not looking to bring back his workforce anytime soon. He has seen productivity increase, so he questions why he would want to change it. He says eventually he may be forced to change and make adjustments, but he thinks this is the time to implement stronger telework policies. Overall, a lot of agencies would like to allow more teleworkers, even after the pandemic. The question is once things do go back to ‘normal,’ will these changes continue to be implemented? Only time will tell.
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