Can COVID-driven telework continue to thrive?

This week, Nathan Abse interviewed Eagle Hill’s David Witkowski, a management consultant who practices at “the intersection of technology and people at work,” as he puts it, about changing attitudes toward telework.

Even before COVID-19 hit, telework already had a solid place in the federal workplace, with about 22% of employees working remotely at least once per week by 2018. Advocates cite telework’s reduced commutes, eased traffic, improved environment and less stress for employees and contractors, especially in cities like the national capital area.

Productivity studies also show good results, and agencies can save on office costs thanks to fewer in-house desks and the property and maintenance expenses those entail. Yet, over two decades of telework, there has also been pushback against the practice, usually prompted by top leaders and managers suspicious of its benefits and worried about productivity. In fact, telework was being rolled back at several departments under the Trump administration until the sudden pandemic required emptying most federal workplaces.

Since March, the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders and individual workers’ health and childcare concerns quickly pushed telework to unprecedented levels. At least three-quarters of feds are still working remotely, according to the Office of Personnel Management and other sources. With a long history of mostly positive employee responses to telework, it is perhaps not surprising that the current wave is garnering the same high praise from employees: Recent survey research shows feds embracing the virtual office.

One online survey of nearly 2,000 federal employees (almost all currently teleworking) conducted by Federal News Network found the vast majority of workers are in no hurry to end virtual work. In a scientific poll of over 500 feds recently administered by Eagle Hill Consulting, a fed-focused management consulting firm, 68% of teleworkers reported they wanted to increase virtual work, while only 3% said they wanted to reduce it. Fully 70% said they were more productive as teleworkers than in their traditional workplace.

This week, Nathan Abse interviewed Eagle Hill’s David Witkowski, a management consultant who practices at “the intersection of technology and people at work,” as he puts it, about changing attitudes toward telework. "Prior to COVID-19, there was a sense that employees had to be physically present to accomplish their work," Witkowski said about the survey. "Clearly, that isn't the case. Now, agencies have an unexpected opportunity to fundamentally shift their telework strategy.”

This Q&A with David Witkowski has been edited for length and clarity.

According to Eagle Hill’s survey results, very few of the people who now telework want to go back to the workplace. Why is that?

Witkowski:  I think there at least two primary drivers for this. Look at this result from the point of view of both personal logistics and convenience. This feeling is especially true for folks in the D.C. area, I think. When I lived there, I had to commute literally an hour-plus each way.

So, one of the great benefits of telework—from the standpoint of effective use of your time and productivity—is the massive amount of time saved not commuting, not stuck on Interstate 66 or 495. Just about everyone I know would rather spend an hour more each day either actually working or being with family. On both fronts, it’s a quality of life improvement.

Telework by feds has more than doubled due to the pandemic. Are health concerns the main motivator?

Witkowski: There have been a number of surveys, including ours,  that ask people how safe they feel about going back to the workplace, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Right now, looking at the data—especially with the surges in infection we now see in, for example, Florida, Texas and Arizona—many people see that we may have reopened too generally or too early.

The coronavirus is surging. That’s a fact. Myself, I have a high-risk person at home. I do not want to go out and risk bringing the infection home. The outcome would be very bad. Many others are in a similar situation. Now, on another point, if you ask supervisors if they feel they are doing all they can in the current situation, many give an interesting answer.

What did the supervisors say about telework?

Witkowski: Many supervisors replied, when asked about themselves and their efforts regarding telework, that they could do a better job—on transparency, communications and giving direction to their employees. I think this is just a remarkable answer because that’s supervisors being very self-aware. They’re saying, “Hey, my employees are expecting even more of me—there’s an implication that I should do more.” There’s a recognition along the lines of, “I’m not communicating as much as I should.” They see there’s a better path to go down, to be more transparent and engaged with the workforce, even in this remote work situation.

I think this kind of recognition, which you see in the survey results, says a lot about the quality of the federal workforce’s supervisors.

What’s your experience with telework in the federal workplace?

Witkowski: I worked on telework policy for the federal government about a decade ago. Things have changed a lot. Back then, many more supervisors and managers often held a lot more skepticism about whether employees could be trusted to just get the work done in a telework situation. Many people just weren’t sure that the federal government or its workplaces had the technology or skills to work remotely—to collaborate well, to carry out the mission. But nowadays, what just about everyone sees is that people can be productive—they can do good work, they can help their agency to carry out the mission—even while teleworking. With this in documented evidence, there is less impetus to go back into traditional workplaces when it is so clear that people can work just as well remotely.

Now COVID-19 is pushing  agencies toward remote work, but there’s a long history of federal telework, with support going back and forth, right?

Witkowski: Yes. Telework has been on a total roller coaster ride—with major ups and downs over the years. The first telework-specific law, encouraging telework in the federal workforce, came in 2001. That law directed agencies to investigate if wider use of telework would be possible. Since then, there have been 19 years of different legislation and actions on telework, going back and forth on supporting it, depending on the disposition of each administration and Congress.

Looking back, sometimes the tide turned for and sometimes against telework—sometimes very quickly. For instance, in 2010, there was a huge push for telework. But, then, suddenly the tide turned against it. That anti-telework push followed the private sector’s moves. In 2012, tech company Yahoo!’s then-CEO Marissa Mayer turned against telework—with ripple effects in the private and public sector.

In truth, back then telework just wasn’t as effective, partly due to technological hurdles, as leadership had hoped it would be. But, even now, in the federal government that’s still a huge issue—aging technology. For instance, I was in Portland, Ore., meeting with a physician for the Department of Veterans Affairs, discussing telework. He told me that when he tried to retrieve, say, a necessary document online, it could take five minutes—per page! Not good. So, infrastructure often just hasn’t been good enough  at many agencies.

So, impediments to federal telework has come not just from managers’ lack of trust in employees but also from understanding that technology couldn’t rise to the task?

Witkowski: Yes. But I think all that’s finally really changing now. For instance, with 5G technology coming out—very soon—it’s going to change everything, radically. Like, with the newest iPhone due out this fall with 5G, the technology will be about 100 times faster than a home cable or fiber-optic connection. Telework, finally, is getting progressively easier to actually implement.

Bottom line then—with powerful new technologies and COVID-19 driving telework, will fed telework will be hard to slow? 

Witkowski: Well, actually, there are multiple inputs into how well telework performs—so, it’s not just that the technology must be in place. That’s important, but there are four major inputs that must be considered, which can help or hinder telework.

First, there’s technology, and whether that’s up to speed. Second, there’s the law, and the policy that follows—and related to this is how the unions interact, their requirements, with management and agency general counsels, about these policies. Third, there is the nature of the work being considered for telework—for instance, some work can be done readily as telework and other work cannot. Like, the specific work of the Oregon VA physician I mentioned—that just can’t be done as telework. Fourth, there are the attitudes and behaviors of managers, supervisors and employees, toward telework.

On that last point, in our survey we can see that there is a closing gap toward more trust. That is, there’s more trust from the workforce, in that the employees think their agency can pull off telework successfully. That attitude cuts the other way, too. Supervisors are trusting their employees, and they report a real uptick in believing both they and their employees can do it. If you ask people in general, “Do you think your agency can work in a telework environment?” Now 88%, in our research, say “yes.”

So, the tide is actually turning for more telework?

Witkowski: Yes. In my opinion, soon we will see a successful vaccine come out—in the coming months, I believe. And, at that point, as people perceive that it’s safe to go back into an office environment, it still just won’t be business as usual, with everyone suddenly headed back to the office. Instead, I think we’ll see people saying, “Yes, I can go into the office. But I want an alternative arrangement where I come in two or however many days a week—not all the time—or something where I do a lot more virtual work.” The point is now there is both the technology and the “trust culture” for more agencies to do much more telework.

Do you think fewer people will spend time in the office?

Witkowski: I think that there will be an evolution in that direction. Why? Again, several factors. First, there’s the sheer cost to the agencies of office space. One of the key forces involved in pushing telework many years ago was the already high cost of real estate—especially in the D.C. area. That’s when the idea of “hoteling” and “hot desks” really got moving toward a situation where not every employee would come in to the office every day; instead, they would rotate through at different times.

I think this and related concepts will continue to expand under a new normal of more telework. Over time, we’ll be moving toward far more people not coming in to the office. In my work, not on federal projects but on advising banking and other businesses, you see so many people work together from far-flung time zones—and it’s not practical to meet in person much of the time. Already there you see just an enormous amount of this kind of full-on telework.

And telework will depend on the kind of jobs feds have?

Witkowski: That’s right. Before I was a consultant I was a microbiologist, and that kind of work would not have been very practical to take home. You just have to do most of it at the lab, and you’re not going to take bacteria home with you. But with a lot of knowledge work—things like mission support, finance management, IT, legal, acquisition, a lot of which is going on in the federal government—a lot of that can be done at home. Meanwhile, law enforcement and much of health care work has to be done face to face, at least until we have better telemedicine. Yes, much of that has to be done in person, until technology evolves.

What will happen to the traditional federal workplace and its concrete, chrome and glass office buildings?

Witkowski: It’s a good question. Technology is driving a lot of change. Just think of artificial intelligence, cloud and cybersecurity—these were not the top topics just five or 10 years ago. Now they are coming into reality. Practically everyone has Siri or Alexa—virtual assistants—on their phones and computers at home. Across our lives and work, we’re going to see more and more artificial intelligence and process robotics. The nature of our work, specifically, is going to change completely the next five or 10 years. That means the nature of working collaboratively is going to change profoundly, too. How are the agencies preparing for that? We’ll see. As for the federal government’s huge workplace buildings? Hey, we don’t know.

Are telework attitudes being driven by consumer apps, like Siri and Alexa and FaceTime?   

Witkowski: Yes. If you ask me the two biggest factors going into more telework, here they are: First, the technology is fast becoming more reliable and stable. Second, people’s cultural trust and other attitudes toward telework have improved dramatically—partly because of the things you mention in their home lives. And when you see COVID has forced so many of us into telework—and when people see people teleworking and the work getting done—that dramatically improves everyone’s trust even more.

How is the federal workforce holding up for now, in the face of—for many feds—such a quick turn to telework?

Witkowski: For many, very well.

I’d like to give you an example. I recently worked with the Department of the Air Force. They had to change to virtual very, very suddenly in the COVID emergency. I mean, in my example, it went from everyone on-base, then suddenly to everybody sitting six-feet apart then suddenly, “do not come to the base unless you are military police or have a critical position.” Even the top officers still on-base and close to each other are using video conferencing and other technology—not meeting in person—as they try to get through this and maintain social distancing.

It’s all about how do we telework here. How do we collaborate effectively without sitting in front of computers 12 hours a day? How do we make sure we are fulfilling the agency mission? And, as our survey has shown, governmentwide, about half of those surveyed report that they are coping with their job changing, and then another half feel some lack of clarity on how to remain successful in this new mode.

My point here is that these problems are fairly easy to fix, with the right supervisory input—spending more time on the team, setting a common vision and individual goals. The work is still getting done, and the problems are readily fixed. Moving into more telework can be difficult, but supervisors can fix problems by engaging their people—whether by text, phone, email, video teleconference. If they take the time, these problems can be dealt with effectively while doing telework.

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