Federal Employees Say Technology Can Help or Hurt Work-Life Balance

While smartphones and laptops can help federal employees get their work done while they are out of the office, they can also make workers feel like they're "always on," a study has found.

by Alison Knezevich, The Baltimore Sun / February 17, 2015

(TNS) -- Federal agency leaders are divided over whether technology helps them find a better work-life balance — or simply leaves them feeling more stressed.

While smartphones and laptops can help federal employees get their work done while they are out of the office, they can also make workers feel like they're "always on" — obligated to immediately return a manager's email, for example, no matter the time of day, the Federal Leaders Digital Insight Study has found.

"Even if there's not an explicit expectation, they feel like it's part of the culture," said Dan Chenok, executive director of the Center for The Business of Government at IBM, who chaired the study panel. "They feel that their managers are expecting them to be on and available" at all times.

The study was conducted by the nonprofit National Academy of Public Administration and ICF International, a consulting firm.

About 37 percent of respondents said that technology had improved the balance between personal life and work. Another 35 percent said that technology had disrupted that balance.

Overall, the researchers found, government leaders believe agencies are reaping benefits from technology. But while flexible workplaces can be a great recruiting tool, they wrote, they also can "risk creating never-ending workdays," in which employees feel as if they can't leave their work at the office.

The federal government in recent years has encouraged employees to "telework" — do their jobs from outside the office. The Telework Enhancement Act, signed five years ago by President Barack Obama, requires agencies to identify and notify workers who are eligible to telework.

Andy Flacks, who retired last year after 36 years with the federal government, teleworked one day a week and supervised employees who did the same. The Baltimore man said it's important for managers and employees to know what they expect of each other when communicating from off-site.

"I would go over the expectations with them," said Flacks, who was most recently a program manager with the Department of Health and Human Services. "I understand you have to go to the bathroom, I understand you have to walk the dog. But if I call you, I'd like a response back within 30 minutes."

Flacks described the eligibility restrictions. Before getting approval to telework, an employee must show that he or she has adequate space and equipment at home and can work free from distractions. They cannot telework if they are working another job from home.

"They have to sign a huge telework agreement saying what they can or cannot do," he said.

Chenok, the study chair, said expectations were an issue for those respondents who said technology had harmed their work-life balance.

"Expectations for quick answers far outweigh the real need and the ability for one to do real work in between electronic engagement," one respondent said.

But another employee, a federal executive with three small children, said that without technology, "I would have to miss important moments in their lives or not take the job I have today."

"With my BlackBerry and laptop, I have been able to be present for my children while still meeting the requirements of my job," the executive said. "I have been able to be on the road, pick up kids, and do a telecom before their school activity."

The study's authors concluded that the government should develop policies that define clear expectations for using technology outside of work hours.

Chenok said those policies need to be tailored to each agency's needs. A law enforcement agency that responds to emergencies, for instance, would need a different policy than one for an agency that processes benefits during normal business hours.

Flacks says expectations are important.

"As long as the employee knows what is expected of him or her," he said, "it's a beautiful thing."

An earlier version of this story misstated the role of ICF International. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

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