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Posted by on May 7, 2014

Not Just Phoning It In: HR’s Role in Supporting Agency Telework


I attended the Federal Workplace Training and Expo recently. There were many great presentations, but my favorite by far was by Mika Cross from OPM on the topic of telework.

I was not surprised to hear that 32% of teleworkers participate in telework three or more days a week. I was surprised, however, to learn that 12% of Federal workers have not been notified of their telework eligibility and 24% of Federal Agencies still do not have a telework policy in place to meet the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010. (You can learn more about the act and Federal use of telework at Perhaps even more surprising, 22% of Federal employees did not receive approval for telework even though their job would allow it. This is all in spite of measurable benefits ranging from energy savings to better Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey results.

Given the benefits of telework to the Federal agency and employees alike, HR teams have an imperative to implement telework to the extent possible in their agencies.

This presents several complex challenges for HR:

  • HR is becoming more virtual and individual contributors must learn how to work as HR professionals on virtual teams as managers adapt to managing virtual HR teams.
  • HR professionals must become adept at supporting a virtual client base.
  • HR must help their client base learn how to participate on and manage virtual teams.

Rumor Has It

According to OPM research, the number one barrier to telework in agencies is management resistance. HR’s change management capabilities are key to overcoming resistance, specifically in listening to their clients and separating myths about telework from the reality.

One of the most common concerns HR hears from clients is that they will not be able to adequately supervise a teleworker. What I find most interesting about this concern is that so many employees only telework a few days a week and have little to no interaction with their managers when they are in the office, yet the manager still feels concern about managing the employee remotely.

Ms. Cross suggested a method to address this is to start by having the manager telework a few days a week to help the manager both understand the benefits of telework and that he can manage without being in the same building.

I’d also propose that HR offer to facilitate conversations between the manager and the employee about how to measure productivity with the intent that the conversations will continue without HR facilitation after the initial agreement.

I have also heard about increased scrutiny of teleworking employees. For example, expecting an hour-by-hour account of the person’s time when working remotely, but not having the same expectation when the employee is in the office. There is also often a mismatch in expectations around communications. Some individuals prefer to use telework to be “heads down” on a project and expect not to be disturbed. If an employee’s manager, however, expects the teleworker to check in via email or telephone throughout the day and to be on instant messenger all day, their productivity might be severely limited. In my experience, mismatches in expectations – especially those around communication– lead to the greatest dysfunction among virtual teams.

Tips for Making it Work

So, how can HR help managers and individual contributors set and meet expectations and drive effective communications?

  1. Guidance for the organization
    As agencies implement telework policies, HR can facilitate the process to create communication norms (e.g., when to IM versus when to email or call, how often to “check in” with your team or manager, when to share documents), ensure expectations around availability online, and enable use of knowledge sharing / collaboration tools (some of which may require training). Ultimately, we want to help line managers to manage the work, not the time.
  2. Training for Managers
    Just as OPM requires training for new supervisors, Federal law governing telework requires that there be an interactive training program for eligible employees and their managers. The training for managers should not only cover telework policies, but also provide the manager with both the leadership skills needed to manage the team and the technology know-how to use the collaboration tools.
  3. Training for Individual Contributors
    Just as managers need to know how to manage a virtual team, individual contributors need to know how to fully participate on a virtual team. Again, it’s not only about the rules and regulations, but also about how to operate, interact virtually with team members, and how to use technology appropriately.
  4. Training for Teams
    Virtual teams face challenges that are different from those of face-to-face teams.  The virtual nature of the team must be built into the team charter, into how the team sets goals, and how the team measures performance. Bringing the team together for training specific to working as a virtual team – even virtual training – at the formation of the team can head off potential problems and increase overall efficacy of the team.

Many Federal agencies are doing a fantastic job at supporting telework in their organization. NIH, for example, hosted a “Telework Festival” and maintains online resources to support telework at NIH. They also offer both employee and manager training on telework. GSA maintains many tools to support teleworkers, including telework dashboards that provide managers with timely, accurate and comprehensive telework performance and participation metrics in order to analyze the effectiveness of telework. HR plays a key role in driving these initiatives to support telework.

Of course, all of this is rooted in a strong, clear telework policy that is implemented fully. The intangibles, however, may play a larger role in the overall benefit to the organization. How do we develop a culture that encourages a productive telework environment?  Does your organization have a culture that values teleworkers as much as on-site staff? How is HR shaping your culture regarding telework? We’d love to hear from you.


  1. Well I searched for this title and found this, never thought i’d find the answer

  2. Hi, great suggestion and an interesting article post, it’s
    going to be fascinating if this is still the case in a few years

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