Teleworking: A house divided

Next to “Did you see 60 Minutes Sunday night?” and talk of March (yawn) Madness, the subject of teleworking is probably one of the most divisive topics in federal offices these days. For good reason. Some agencies are downsizing work spaces, encouraging more employees to work from home even as some others are reducing the number of days employees can do their thing from home.

As traffic gets worse in most places — Austin, Chicago, Washington — and aging subway systems fail, teleworking to many seems to be the way to go. But …

The issue of how much you can trust somebody to do their job out-of-sight may have been replaced by what many critics say is the anti-social nature of being part of a team that teleworkers seldom see or interact with.

As one critic of teleworking put it: “First and foremost, I question how new, young employees of federal agencies will EVER be able to bond with their fellow workers and develop loyalty to their agency when they do not have assigned desks, thereby resulting in their being adjacent to different fellow workers on most days, and they are encouraged to spend two or more days a week working outside..”

Another said: “My God, the twenty-somethings in my office frequently appear unable or uncomfortable with eye-to-eye dealings with their coworkers. Imagine what kind of bonds they will have (or not) with fellow employees after a few years of teleworking.”

But most of the comments about teleworking (most from teleworkers) are positive in the extreme:

“I have been retired since January 2016, but worked under the rehired annuitant program until October 2017. Our agency (part of Treasury) had a somewhat restricted telework program since most of the employees were in non-government locations around the country performing their duties. When we were not out on assignment and not attending meetings or training, we were allowed to telework as long as we had specific work that we could do offsite. I teleworked about four days in a typical month and found it a nice break from my commute from the Maryland suburbs to our D.C. HQ building. Because of the frequent travel (whether overnight or to D.C. area work locations), we had regular contact with other members of the team for mentoring, etc. I found telework to be more productive when I was working on reports, research, etc., where a quiet environment was more conducive to the work. The opportunity for some telework probably extended my employment by a year or two thanks to avoiding the D.C. traffic when I was scheduled in the office.

“I agree with others that it is important to have some face time with other employees, but our office provided a good balance between that and telework. It also allowed employees to avoid using all of their sick leave after some medical issues that made it difficult for them to get to the office, but they could continue to do their work from home. We had some employees who the supervisors found were abusing the policy and their telework days were either eliminated or more tightly controlled. I don’t think it should be eliminated or too restricted, but I don’t favor a ‘whenever the employee wants to’ type policy. — W.H.

In response to early comments on “The dark side of teleworking” column, one reader said:

“The idea that one would not be able to eat lunch at a shared desk, (too many federal offices are housed in old buildings that already have rodent infestation and not treated properly), hang up personal mementos and use the communal phone being used as reasons to not move ahead more strenuously with telework is foolhardy. And laughable.

“Furthermore, long conversations at a cubicle discussing non-work related issues should be discouraged by any means necessary.

“People want telework because it makes very little sense travelling 90 minutes to 2 hours each way to work to do an 8-hour job. Not many of us are fortunate to have a 10 minute walk to work.

“People want telework because the commuting costs saved by not travelling on those days can be saved for retirement (I knew you would love that one) or used to make needed renovations to a home. Or just to take a vacation.

“People want telework because it may be the one thing that can help to make realistic the ever present talk about improving family-work life balance. The only other thing that has been done on this front is to have employees do surveys that tell them how great things are.

“I could go on, but somewhere someone has a train or bus to go catch to go in to the office.” — Courtney Campbell, Jacksonville.