Education

Fort Worth and Other Munis Turn to Telework Amid Belt-Tightening

Changes in workplace expectations and energy prices make telework a viable option for state and local agencies.

by / July 27, 2008 0

Surging gas prices are tightening belts and propelling state and local government green agendas. A mass exodus of baby boomers ready to retire is around the corner for agencies, while governments struggle to recruit the Generation X and Millennial employees demanding more flexible work environments than government's norm. These conditions make offering telework an attractive option for state and local agencies in Texas.

Programs in Fort Worth and Austin appear to demonstrate that telework is effective for jobs that don't require much interaction with co-workers or citizens. Also, a managerial focus on results rather than attendance is critical; the consensus appears to be that employees with concrete, result-oriented goals do well teleworking.

A common telework-related fear is that employees will flounder and become unproductive in the face of household distractions. However, the opposite may be true. Government employees in Texas frequently report increased productivity at home.

"When I'm in the office, I have phone calls. I have people coming into my office," said Betsi Chatham, senior GIS analyst of the Fort Worth Department of Environmental Management (DEM). "I have ad hoc requests that quite honestly, co-workers could e-mail me and ask me instead of coming into my office taking up 20 minutes of my time [as opposed to] a five-minute e-mail. I take advantage of not being distracted like I am at work. I get more done."

Many Texans say they notice little difference when their co-workers telework because they communicate almost exclusively via e-mail when everyone works in the office.

Janay Tieken, project development coordinator of the DEM, is one of Chatham's co-workers and can attest to that.

"There are some days when I don't know if Betsi's there in her office or not. We're just communicating as we always do," Tieken said.

As much as Chatham loves teleworking, she insists face-to-face communication is better suited for specific parts of her job.

"Staff members come to me with ideas, but their minds often aren't thinking spatially. Their minds think in terms of the tasks they need to complete. Face to face, based upon their body language, the way they're talking - maybe they're showing me stuff like graphics or databases - I get the gist of it a lot quicker than I would if I read a request at home," Chatham said.

She explained that when she doesn't talk in person first to the people who propose projects, she often has to spend extra time making adjustments.

Brian Boerner, director of the DEM, is open to expanding telework in Fort Worth where it makes sense.

"As you move forward, you're going to have to identify those jobs in the city where a person is important, but a place isn't," he said. "Think about a switchboard operator. Is it possible to image a call center so that basically you go into your home office and you log on and now you're at your city switchboard 311 system, and then you log off and you're back at home. The customer doesn't care who they get, just as long as somebody is there."


Telework in Fort Worth
In 1995, Fort Worth enacted its Employee Commuter Benefits Program that authorized managers to allow telecommuting on bad air quality days. Department heads allowed it sporadically, but the city lacked a formal set of procedures. By 2007, the DEM teamed with other agency representatives to create a formal policy. The DEM used recommendations posted on Telework.gov, a portal from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and the U.S. General Services Administration about federal telework practices, as a guide for Fort Worth.

The city ensured employees understood telework wasn't an entitlement.

"You don't have a right to telecommute," said Haily Summerford, public education program

coordinator of the DEM. "It's a benefit, and it is determined based on your job duties and your performance appraisals."

The DEM was careful to set up its 2007 telework pilot for success, selecting just 55 employees to participate. Managers received a checklist for determining the jobs in their departments that were well suited for telecommuting, such as the finance department.

Most employees teleworked two days each week so managers could compare work performance versus home. At the end of the six-month pilot, managers saw a 90 percent productivity increase overall from employees working from home, said Summerford.

Tieken chose to telework once a week because of her job's demand for in-person meetings.

"Wednesday is my telecommute day, and I just look forward to not having to make that drive and that break in the middle of the week. It's just wonderful," Tieken said.

The pilot allowed two types of telework. One option was to telework each week on a regular basis.

"We also had situational, or episodic telecommuting, which basically said you could go to your supervisor and say, 'Look, I need to write this grant. Do you mind if I do it from home?' Or on an air pollution watch day, you might work from home," Summerford said.

The DEM didn't want many citywide rules, so it let managers determine who would telecommute and how managers would measure productivity.

"I think we will see departments set additional guidelines making things more clear and flexible," Summerford said. "Our advisory committee didn't want this to be so black and white that no one wanted to do it."

Before telecommuting, workers had to fill out paperwork related to safety conditions in their at-home work environments. Employees needed to verify that they had ergonomic chairs and clutter-free walkways from their desks to their bathrooms.

"Let's say I fell at home, I could file workers' comp because I was working for the city of Fort Worth," Chatham said.

IT departments also had concerns over what help desk number the teleworkers would call for technical support. Project leaders decided employees would use the normal number they used in the office.

Teleworking employees often complained of being kicked off the virtual private network (VPN) due to increased usage. City IT workers are currently busy trying to strengthen the VPN, said Summerford.


Austin's Town and Gown
Austin has had a formal telework policy since 1999. The state capital saw telework's "green" qualities and flexibility as a way to be innovative, said Karen Sharp, acting director of Austin's Human Resources Department.

"We wanted to keep pace with other businesses in terms of employment arrangements. It has been a trend in employment in general," Sharp said, adding that the policy aimed to combat traffic congestion.

More than 600 Austin city employees currently telecommute. Many Austin departments report better productivity from teleworking employees. However, overall the city has seen mixed results.

Peter Collins, CIO of Austin, eliminated much of the telework in the city's former Department of Information Systems when he took over the agency in 2003. The department was plagued by inefficiencies, and Collins blamed part of the problem on telework abuses.

"It was just out of control," Collins said. "They rolled it into my department. I had to blend them in, and it was just not working. There were no measurements in place for productivity."

He forbids telework among employees who need to interact with co-workers on major projects. He said in the past, telework slowed operations because teleworking employees refused to attend meetings on days they were scheduled to telework.

"There are times when you simply need to be in a room for a meeting if you're dealing with

a $10-, $20-, $30 million project and you have problems. I want that person here," Collins said.

Weeks after Texas Technology interviewed Collins, he was put on paid administrative leave pending an Austin Police Department investigation into allegations he used city resources for a personal project. As of press time, the police department has not issued a report on its findings. On July 3, the Travis County District Attorney's Office decided not to pursue criminal charges against Collins, according to the Austin-American Stateman blog. As of July 22, Collins remains on leave pending completion of an administrative investigation.

Telework is also happening in higher education. Roughly 86 employees telework at the University of Texas at Austin. Julien Carter, associate vice president of human resources at the UT, teleworks once every other week.

"My presence isn't necessarily required in the office when I work on reports. However I couldn't do that very many days because I supervise people, and I need to meet with people," Carter said.

On the other hand, Carter, insists remote employees can be just as much a part of group dynamics in meetings as physically present employees. The meeting leader simply needs to make an effort to keep remote employees in the discussions.

"You have to teach the etiquette of it all to the facilitator of the meeting. Just like you would do with anyone sitting at the table that may not be participating, as a gatekeeper, you try to find ways to draw all people out at the table," Carter said.

Virtually all telework advocates emphasize "results-oriented" management as critical to successful teleworking. But what does that mean? Carter is developing a workshop for teaching managers how to manage based on results.

"Managing for results means asking, 'What's the goal, and what does it look like if you achieve it?' And setting up the opportunities for [consistent] communication," Carter said.


Not a Day-Care Substitute
Telework advocates often point to more time with children as a result of teleworking. The Fort Worth telework pilot emphasized that employees were not to telecommute while simultaneously caring for children or dependent adults. However, given that the telework management philosophy focuses on results, it seems fair to ask if it should matter whether or not someone cares for children while teleworking. Years ago, Chatham managed to telework while caring for her infant daughter.

"My first year teleworking, my daughter did stay home with me," she said. "Fortunately it worked for about 14 months. I'd feed her and put her in front of something. She'd play for a couple of hours. It got to a point where she wanted interaction. She needed more attention. It was like, 'OK, I'm not being productive. I have to put her in a day-care facility,'" Chatham said.

For cases in which a new mother's job is a good fit, Boerner still advocates telework as an option.

"There were a couple of employees who were new moms. It allowed them to still work, but also be able to manage their families and create that bonding moment they were looking for early in their child's life," Boerner said.

Meanwhile, Austin remains strict about not allowing teleworkers to juggle work and child care while on the clock.


Future of Telework
While telework appears to be a viable option for government, it may always be a supplement to operations. For example, onsite government bill collectors will never disappear.

"We are rapidly moving for people to pay things online, but there is still satisfaction some people get from standing in line and paying a water bill or electric bill," Boerner said. "There is still a segment of our community that we call the 'nonbanked.

' They do not have a checking account. They deal in a cash-only society. The only way they'll be able to interact with the tax office or revenue office is by standing in line and paying." 

Boerner expects to see happier employees as more of his city's work force teleworks.

"For the city, I think you had much higher morale in those employees and better attitudes because they didn't spend an hour in the morning and an hour at night having to fight traffic, find parking and everything associated with commuting," Boerner said. "When they were in the office, they were better employees."

Tieken would agree with that statement.

"It's great for the environment. I feel better about making the commute knowing that at least one day a week, I'm having a positive footprint." Tieken said. "I would have a very difficult time going to a job where I didn't have this setup."

 

 

Andy Opsahl

Andy Opsahl is a former writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.