As I write this column from a remote location enjoying a beautiful view, it reinforces the notion that telework has its advantages, both to the employer and the employee. But that remote location with its great view is also a distraction, and without structure and rules may actually be counterproductive. It’s the accountability of the deadline that keeps me going.
This same concept of accountability should be a part of any agency’s telework program.
The best publication available for federal-sector telework is the Office of Personnel Management’s April 2011 “Guide to Telework in the Federal Government,” available on the telework. gov website under “Policies and Procedures.” It is a must-read for any employee who wants to challenge a denied telework opportunity or any manager trying to efficiently and fairly implement a telework program.
While the word “accountability” is hardly mentioned in the 41-page guide, the idea of accountability is at least strongly implicit. The concept of accountability is the bulwark of the program, and without it, telework could fail or at least stumble.
The first accountability concept is the requirement that all teleworking employees and their managers receive training. This requirement has few exceptions, and those must be applied by the agency head. The idea that everyone be aware of their telework responsibilities is an important part of accountability.
The second and perhaps most obvious accountability requirement is that every teleworking employee must have a written agreement defining the telework arrangement, including the setting of work expectations. It is this agreement that should define, in advance, the accountability of the telework arrangement. Early in OPM’s guide is the notion that this agreement defines manager and employee expectations and gives the employee the resources to get the job done. When that job is not done, the telework agreement provides the manager with the necessary documentation to refine or revoke the arrangement.
The telework agreement should also include minimum performance and conduct expectations. For example, it is not unreasonable to include a provision about the employee’s accessibility. An employee who has this requirement in a teleworking agreement and who is repeatedly unresponsive to emails or telephone calls could have the telework arrangement canceled.
The OPM guide expects that teleworking employees perform at least at the fully successful level. An employee who performs at a substandard level could lose telework if the manager evaluates performance at less than the fully successful level and has the documentation and reasoned judgment to back up the conclusion about substandard performance.
Another important accountability feature of the OPM guide is the unequivocal statement that telework is not a substitute for dependent care. This reinforces the notion that teleworking employees should be able to perform their jobs at least as well, if not better, than when they are in the office.
One thing the OPM guide makes clear is that telework is not an employee right. Yet, throughout the federal workplace, employees are angry and feel a sense of being treated unfairly when denied telework. Some managers feel beleaguered with a sense of having no choice but to grant telework even when the manager believes it is not a good idea. Perhaps this is because the OPM guide makes clear that the unfair denial or revocation of telework can be the subject of a grievance procedure. Also, denial of telework as an accommodation to an employee with disabilities can be the subject of an equal employment opportunity complaint.
While telework is not a right, managers cannot arbitrarily deny it. Careful thought, documentation and experiential reasoning should go into the decision.
Telework is not for every job or every employee. But every employee who is doing his job as a part of a telework arrangement is subject to accountability. And the tools to establish the accountability expectations are available to both teleworking employees and their managers.