The unexpected benefits of telework for government

Four big takeaways from my Little Hoover Commission testimony

Last month, Kate Lister, the president of Global Workplace Analytics and I gave testimony to California’s Little Hoover Commission. This hearing was called by the Commission as part of their investigation into the reality of government agencies supporting “widespread long-term telework.” In other words, what if many of those who suddenly started working from home because of COVID-19 were to continue doing that permanently?

This two-hour hearing—officially titled “Public Hearing on Transitioning State Government Workforce to Permanent Remote Work (Part 1)”—was broadcast live and the recording is available here

It was a lively discussion, but before we dive into the top takeaways, it’s important to level-set. 

Let’s start by stating the obvious: These are not normal times. Normal “working from home” is not the same as “working from home during a global pandemic.” 

Even people who are used to working from home are stressed and disrupted by multiple issues that have nothing to do with work-style changes. Healthcare concerns for family members, school closures, economic woes, political discourse and civic unrest are just some examples. 

Next, let’s talk about terminology. The phrase “telework” is usually associated with short duration telework, granted by exception as privilege to a select few. However, in this hearing, we’re talking about long-term, long duration telework — widespread by default, not by exception. 

A common myth is that “work from home” can only be done with small teams and/or for short durations (days/weeks/month-or-two). Both Kate and I have personal experience of high functioning, physically distributed teams of more than 1,000+ people for multiple years — a few for over a decade. 

Now that we’ve level-set, let’s dive into the four key takeaways.

Routine Telework Improves Disaster Planning

Short term disaster plans are common for dealing with short-term disasters, like power outages, fires, and bad storms. When there is short-term disruption for a day or two, people quickly catch up with work after they get back into the office. 

Long term disaster planning requires being able to continue doing normal work from outside the office while the office remains closed for months. By contrast, you cannot “just catch up” after a multi-month office closure — you have to keep doing work even while the office remains closed. 

Routine, recurring, widespread “telework” lets you rehearse and improve your long term disaster planning by: 

  • finding hidden process weak-points that are location-specific 
  • verifying that everyone knows how to do their work as part of an office-optional workforce

In fact, the State of California was running a telework efficiency experiment when the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake hit. Those already comfortable working from home were able to resume working quickly after the earthquake. Others lacking equipment or training, were unable to start learning to start work from home, while already trapped at home. They remained unable to work until the offices, freeways and bridges were repaired and reopened.

People depend on government services to keep running without disruption, even when government employees cannot get into their usual office. We need fault tolerant government operations. A government building should not be a single point of failure for an agency. 

Telework Fosters Diversity

The commute is a physical barrier for some. So, requiring people to commute to a physical building limits your ability to hire a diverse workforce. Conversely, removing that commute barrier improves your ability to hire diversely.

It’s worth noting that while “diversity” is often used in a racial or gender context, there are multiple other metrics of diversity. For example, there are those with varying abilities, including those who are blind, depend on wheelchairs, or veterans with PTSD, etc. There are 37M Americans with long-term disabilities, with 74% (29M) long-term unemployed. There are 4M Americans on the autism spectrum, with 85% unemployed for life. 

Beyond that, there are many other groups who could benefit from government jobs that do not require reporting to a physical office. Those include: 

  • Caregivers: 43% working mothers drop out of the workforce once they have children, according to Harvard Business Review. Others drop out to care for ill siblings or aging parents.
  • Military spouses: This segment often relocates as their families are restored, and therefore have an unemployment rate three times higher than the local unemployment rate. Military spouses with PhDs have a 16% unemployment rate.
  • Young professionals: In 2016, millennials became the largest segment of the US workforce. Sometime in 2020/2021, GenZ will become the second largest segment of the US workforce. These “digital natives” are comfortable and familiar with the modern digital tools needed for this form of work, and they expect to be changing jobs frequently throughout their career. These factors combined make them less likely to relocate for each new job. Typically, government employees are older, so as they approach retirement, hiring younger staff is a priority.

Telework is Good for the Environment 

Climate change and carbon emissions are a concern. The California Air Resource Board tracks the sources of all emissions across California, and here is their latest data.  

CC-BY-NC-ND John O’Duinn

While there is lots of talk about reducing methane from livestock (5.4%), flight tax to offset aviation emissions (1.1%), I’d like to draw attention to passenger vehicles. At 28%, this is the largest source of emissions across the state. Most of these are from single-occupant vehicles commuting to/from work in stop-and-go rush hour traffic, which is the least efficient way to operate an internal combustion engine. 

Agency leadership can help reduce the commuter carbon footprint of their agency by more widely encouraging telework policies. 

The carbon footprint reductions from these telework policies can be measured and reported automatically. California’s Dept of General Services did this by creating a live dashboard https://telework.govops.ca.gov/tracking-telework/. Other agencies can do this, too.

Telework is Part of the New Social Contract: 

The idea of a “job for life” is disappearing with Baby Boomers’ average 4.2 years per employer across all industries. The software industry average is now under two years.

There are a few main reasons top talent now wants and expects remote work: 

  • Relocation pains:  Shorter job tenures mean a new job is less incentive to relocate. Today’s talent would rather live where they want, and not have to worry about relocating every time they change jobs. Also, 35% of Americans have less than $400 in their bank account, so they cannot afford to relocate for a new job, even if they wanted to. 
  • Dual-income families: According to the U.S. Dept of Labor, 61% of families are now dual-income families, and this trend is increasing. When both people are working, who gives up their job to relocate for their spouse’s new job — and can the trailing spouse find a similarly exciting new job in the new location?
  • Private industry trends: Distributed private companies have been have been working like this for decades— out-competing and out-hiring private co-located companies as well as co-located public sector organizations for decades. COVID-19 has accelerated this “long-term telework” trend into a fact of life for many. 

Distributed teams require explicit leadership focus on topics like delegation of authority, trust, team cohesion, burnout and isolation. All things that have been advocated for in ROWE, MBO and other management methodologies.

Before COVID-19, this workforce trend was already happening, with physically distributed private companies out-hiring, out-retaining, out-competing and under-spending their co-located competitors. Since COVID-19, this trend to distributed teams has accelerated exponentially.

The generational changes, the social-contract “no more job for life” changes and now COVID-19 put us at a unique inflection point for our society. Encouraging a widespread telework policy will help government agencies tackle climate change measurably and immediately, not five to 10 years in the future. All while reducing costs, improving disaster resilience and improving workforce diversity. 

Thank you, Little Hoover Commission, for inviting me to speak and for the lively Q+A.

John.

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