The subject of telecommuting is nothing new to the Department of Defense; but with increases in technological capabilities, the threat of swine or bird flu looming somewhere over the horizon, the new anti-terrorism federal building requirements, and a tech savvy workforce; the pressure to talk about telecommuting is growing. So let's talk about telecommuting for a few minutes.
I've personally experienced the telework issue from many perspectives during my career and have had about 12 good years to read and think about it. I'll describe for you some of the issues I encountered as a non-eligible worker-bee, a supervisor, a mid-level manager, a senior level manager, and from where I am today.
As a reader of my blog, you already know that I wore a Navy uniform during my first few years with the Department of Defense. Active duty soldiers, sailors and airmen are taught from the very beginning the importance of being at your post - at the appointed time, awake, alert and without complaint. Falling asleep while your on watch or leaving your post is a very serious offense. During wartime, not being at your post has resulted in more than one courts marshal.
People's lives are literally depending on the watch being where he or she is supposed to be. In my case, I provided hands on medical support to sick and injured people. From a telework perspective, I was not a good candidate during those years.
It is very clear to me that telework under certain circumstances is not a good idea. I know many people - ex-military - who come to the telework discussion from having stood the watch themselves - many people with that kind of background approach the issue with a wary eye. I was one of them.
Others I might put in the "should-not-telework" category would be people who are hired specifically to greet people (secretaries, concierge, appointment clerks (unless by phone), etc). If those people weren't physically where they are supposed to be, the job wouldn't get done. Jobs that require handling classified materials on a regular basis might not be well suited for telework. I would also not want to see any of the contact professions work from home - doctors, medical support staff, airplane mechanics, Navy SEALS, surgeons, etc. Although in some cases I would love to see doctors make house calls again.
When I left the Navy in 1997, I went to work for a federal contractor. During those years, I spent a lot of time on the client site, worked long hours, and rose up the middle management ranks quickly. When I managed small groups of direct reports and had products or services to deliver, telework wasn't much of an issue. In those years, telework was used as a way to conserve leave and keep employees productive during the occasional sickness or acute injury. It was frankly a pretty hands-off affair since employees weren't gone too long or too often. It required some minor documentation and a return-to-work meeting with employees who were hopefully carrying some deliverable in the form of a report, a proposal, or something similar.
I continued to climb the ladder, and in a few short years, I found myself with 11 managerial direct reports - each of them had staffs and departments of their own and products and or services to produce. They were geographically spread out from Kansas to Puerto Rico. My focus shifted from producing anything or supervising production to pure management of people, moral, issues and outcomes. I no longer had the luxury of knowing all of my employees by name and face (except for my 11 task and project managers).
Insight was provided to me in the form of reports: budgets, burn rates, G&A, ODC's vs labor, etc. From that perspective, the economics of teleworking look pretty good. Since I didn't have office space to support for telework employees, overhead was lower. That meant that the company could introduce a lower multiple for labor hours, move excess money into reserves, use excess money for quality improvements, or apply excess to the bottom line. It also gave us flexibility with hiring. We had one employee who did nothing but proposals for us. I never saw him. He did all his work from home. The bottom line was that embracing telework made my company more competitive.
My next job was as the CIO for Navy Medical Logistics. I was dual hatted as the Information Systems Security Manager (ISSM). In these roles, I got to know the technical, security and policy side of telework. At first, it was scary. I had Information Assurance Vulnerability Alerts (IAVA) to contend with. This was a 100% visibility and a no-fail exercise. There were people assigned to make sure that my command was compliant and it was my butt on the line if a roaming laptop came back, plugged in and infected my network.
There were questions about who pays for the home computers and home phone lines, how do we protect government information in an environment where we don't have direct control, and more. Even something as simple as fixing a locked out or forgotten user password was stimulus for a major discussion. At that time, there was little precedent, virtually no policy, and no guru's out there who had set up the systems to guide us.
I had VPN capacity issues and property (mostly computers) tracking issues. I had, in my mind, a major control problem. The computers that people took home with them were no longer surrounded by the safety and protection of my envelope. At the command, I had firewalls, virus protection, remote monitoring, intrusion detection systems, and more. At home, these computers were left at the mercy of whatever user borrowed it. Judging from the volume and quality of my help desk tickets, that was a scary prospect.
Yet, somehow, we survived. We wrote new policy, created new ways to keep our networks safe, and adjusted our personal paradigms. We had to remind ourselves that productivity was the real objective - not security for security sake. Automation is a workforce enabler, and from the big picture perspective, telework gave us a more productive workforce. Specifically, we had a large number of contracting officers (KO's) and their support staffs who, when contract season rolled through (or as they might say: rolled over us), they could work from home and on weekends. This small enhancement in flexibility made a big difference to them and to our customers.
When I accepted the job as Chief for Defense Business Transformation for the Military Health System (MHS), I had a significant outcome to deliver. My staff and the extended support I needed from other departments were spread out as they were in an earlier time in my career. My small contracted team worked from a second building on the same campus, from a third building in another city, and from their homes. The Army Medical Transformation capability was in Texas, the Navy Medical Transformation capability was in DC and Bethesda, and the Air Force medical Transformation support were... well, I never really figured out where they were. They showed up for the meetings and called me on the phone.
The bottom line focus was on outcomes. I didn't much care where everyone was physically located. I was very concerned with our objectives, our obstacles, the strengths and weaknesses of my combined resources, communication abilities, and reach. I was hired to establish a new program - Defense Business Transformation for the Military Health System. I would often only see my staff members once per week - if at all. But I always knew where we (the MHS) were in terms of outcomes, team strengths, and obstacles.
With the help of telework and a remote working arrangement, a program was born where no program existed previously. It had well documented process, a strong virtual presence - and people literally around the world, in three different Services (Army Medicine, Navy Medicine, and Air Force Medical Services) had come together around the notion of good due diligence and better investment decisions.
Due in part to our need to reach out to and empower people around the world that we knew we would never physically meet, we did a lot of work in the virtual space. We embraced asynchronous communication and became comfortable with the notion that we don't need to see one another in order to communicate. Policy, process diagrams, Web sites, podcasts, CD's, brochures - all acted like breadcrumbs that we scattered in strategic places - deliberately leading those who stumbled across them to the same place and the same behavior patterns.
Our footprint was so large, that when it came time to divide up what I had built into smaller parts and distribute those parts into the organization (to "institutionalize" them), there were some lively arguments. Some departments who were inheriting pieces of my program wanted resources too. When they found out how few resources I actually had, they were in disbelief. They thought I had an army of people. The fact that my little platoon made themselves largely virtual and spread out had affected people's perception. We gave the illusion that we were many of us because of outcome was so profound.
Today, I telework myself. Do do this effectively, I had to involve my family. They understand that when I'm in my home office, I'm not available. I work hard to separate the hours I work from the hours I spend with my family or doing other things. Do I leave occasionally and run to the post office or the dry cleaners, you bet I do. But I also keep track of the time I put in and ensure that my employer gets full value from the time they pay for.
My office has two computers, a fax machine, a separate phone line (though I use a government issues phone for most calls), large monitors, Web cams and a USB microphone (for DCO teleconferences), two printers, a big leather chair, and a book shelf of reference materials. It has become my "head space" where I can think about issues and create with minimal interruption, and write in support of many initiatives going on back in the group office space.
Telework is not for everyone. Some people don't like the idea of telework and /or don't have a suitable work site setup to do telework if they wanted to. Thank goodness for them! Most organizations do need some physical presence, and the strengths of working together in the same physical space should never be diminished.
For those who do consider telework, here are some additional issues that deserve some thought:
- Safety: I suspect we will discover that working from an alternative work site does not diminish an employer's responsibility for doing everything they can to provide a safe environment for its employees. The agency I work for has a safety checklist that must be signed by both the employee and the employer. On it are things to look for like wires, lighting, and environmental controls. I think this is an excellent idea & it should be accompanied by some training - perhaps a DVD that employees can take home and watch in the comfort of their home environment.
- Penalties: As more and more people and organizations embrace telework, we need to keep an eye on penalties.
- On the one hand, there are penalties applied against teleworkers by those who don't believe in the program. Either supervisors or fellow employees make it difficult to apply, set up physical meetings on known telework days, or otherwise make life difficult for the teleworker.
- On the other hand, someone WILL abuse the system. Human nature is what it is. If one can surf pornography on computers, someone will surf pornography on computers in the workspace. If someone can be a slacker at home, then someone will be a slacker at home.
The questions we need to ask is what are we going to do about penalties? Answer this question before engaging in a telework program - or risk a blow up later. The most likely scenario would be an uprising from the telework nay-sayers who hold the slacker up as an example of why telework can't work. They irritate the senior decision maker enough where the senior decision maker calls for a halt to the program.
- Employees have to understand how to manage their time, set boundaries, keep good records, care for their home office environment, and communicate in new ways.
- Supervisors have to learn how to expand their virtual reach. The basics of empowering and motivating employees, rewarding, delegating, holding accountable, coordinating, etc don't change in a telework situation. The methods we use to make those things happen change.
- The Business Case:
From the employer perspective, productive hours generally go up as employees spend more time working and less time commuting. Overhead will go down, but only if adjustments are made to accommodate the telework model. For example, double book offices and cubes - getting twice the amount of people in the same square footage.
From a pure time perspective, my commute is 47 miles and averages 90 minutes each way in DC traffic (it's taken me as much as four hours one way, and I've done it in as little as 1 hour with no traffic). By contrast, it takes me 30 seconds to get from my bedroom to my office downstairs, 2 minutes 58 seconds to boot up my HP Windows computer, insert my CAC card, log in, and click through all the automated routines that my IT department set up for me, and 42 seconds to connect the VPN - for a grand total of 4 minutes and 10 seconds. I will subtract the 4 minutes and 10 seconds (my telework commuting time) from my on-site commute time to be fair.
If I were precise about my minutes, which I'm not, I would say that my employer gets an extra 175 minutes and 40 seconds out of my day, every day that I telework. I will instead round up to 180 minutes or 3 hours. So the total additional working time my employer gets for every day I telework looks like this:
Telework 1 day per week = +150 hrs / yr (3hrs x 50 weeks (assuming 2 week vacation))
Telework 2 days per week = +300 hrs / yr
Telework 3 days per week = +450 hrs / yr
Telework 4 days per week = +600 hrs / yr
Telework 5 days per week = +750 hrs / yr
The quality of my work reflects this. Whereas when I do go to the office (which I do every week), I spend most of my time making human connections and nurturing relationships - the sort of thing we do best in person.
Note: There is also an insidious effect in that employees who live and work in the same space tend to blur the two over time. When I first started teleworking, I would find myself working well into the night and early hours of the morning. I would think "I'll just do this one more thing..." and the time would slip away. I admit that I still do this from time to time, but not as often as I used to.
From the employee perspective, consider the following two scenarios (these are my real numbers taken at the time I typed this):
1. Assuming two week vacation, a car that averages 25 mpg, $2.55 / gallon of gas, a 47 mile commute, an $18 parking ticket, and a $10 lunch as the high end costs.
2. Assume the same vacation, car and gas price with a 7.7 mile commute to the Metro. A $4.50 train ticket (each way), a bag lunch from home, a $4 cup of coffee, and a $4.75 parking ticket on the lower end.
In the first scenario, daily cost =
$4.75 trip cost (47 miles / 25mpg x $2.55 gal)
$32.79 per day
In the second scenario, daily cost =
$0.79 trip cost (7.7 miles / 25mpg x $2.55 gal)
+$13.00 ($9 train + $4 coffee)
$18.54 per day
This means an annual, after tax cost savings between $963.84 - $1,705.29 for each one day per week that the employee teleworks. Using the assumptions above, an employee could realize annual after tax savings in according to the table below:
Telework 1 day per week = $963.84 - $1705.29 annual after tax savings
Telework 2 days per week = $1,927.68 - $3,410.58 annual after tax cost savings
Telework 3 days per week = $2,891.52 - $5,115.86 annual after tax cost savings
Telework 4 days per week = $3,855.56 - $6,821.15 annual after tax cost savings
Telework 5 days per week = $4,819.20 - $8,526.44 annual after tax cost savings
In summary, I would offer the following:
- Telework is not for everyone, but where it makes sense to apply telework, it can benefit both the employer and the employee
- Telework can lead to reduction of corporate cost, especially if the work structure is adapted to accomodate it.
- Telework can increase flexibility in schedules through asynchronous communication
- Telework can result in after tax savings for employees
- Telework can make companies more competitive and make jobs with those companies more attractive
- Telework will be abused, so be prepared for that
- Telework requires additional support beyond the obvious: technology, policy, risk mitigation, training and education, and commitment
Keep these things in mind and hopefully you too will have a positive telework experience!