“Measure What Matters” to make better decisions and help save the planet

How one State of California agency created a new open data “telework dashboard” to automatically measure the benefits of a remote-friendly workforce and inform strategic decisions.

Before terms like “work from home” or “distributed teams” became common, government agencies experimented with working over the telephone. While government “telework policies” have existed in various forms for decades, these policies are now getting a lot more attention as agencies struggle to keep government operating in a world reeling from natural disasters, social unrest, and the COVID-19 global pandemic. Remote work and distributed teams are now being viewed as a viable long-term option for those looking to build resilience for their organization as well as their workforce. 

But there’s a catch. Employees must already be comfortable working effectively outside the office before a surprise office closure forces people home. Otherwise to curve to learn how to work from home — while already stuck at home — can be so steep that it becomes a barrier.

This was one of the findings from an unintentional “real world experiment” during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. As luck would have it, the State of California happened to be running a telework experiment when the quake hit. The subsequent report showed that people who were already comfortable working from home prior to the quake were able to resume “normal” work even while offices were still closed — faster than their colleagues who had not previously teleworked and were having to learn the nuances of remote working while already stuck at home, isolated from their team. 

Some people were even blocked entirely from being able to start learning to telework during the emergency closure, because of some essential paper folder sitting on their desk at the now-shuttered office. Learning how to work effectively from home, when already stuck at home, is hard. Thirty years later, this scenario is painfully similar to what many federal and state agencies as well as private organizations went through when COVID-19 forced office closures earlier this year.

(Aside: My opinions on the use of “telework” vs remote work and other terms is already well detailed here. For clarity, I’m using the term “telework” in this article, because that is what was used in the conversations, policy documents and titles of reports from the various government agencies.)

Having a written policy isn’t enough

As evident from the experiment above, and many anecdotes since COVID-19 hit, writing a telework policy and putting it on the shelf doesn’t change anything. An informal “maybe depending on who asks” policy doesn’t help either. Simply writing a policy doesn’t mean your staff will use it, your leadership will encourage widespread use of it or that your organization will be any better prepared for an unexpected prolonged office closure. 

For your telework policy to be effective, it must be used regularly. That way, people who are learning to work remotely can quickly uncover practical problems that need fixing in the theoretical policy. They learn to problem-solve in practice (for example, navigating VPN passwords or internet access) and handle unique challenges (like data privacy) by surfacing these issues in their actual daily work. Solving these various problems is much easier when you can still go into the office to get help debugging setup problems. They also learn to coordinate their work with others as well as how to manage while physically distributed. 

In short, it’s important that employees actually telework on a regular basis to build and retain muscle memory for this new way of working. That’s when organizational resilience will start to become a reality. Once people demonstrate their recurring ability to routinely work outside of the office, you can be assured the physical office building is no longer an organizational single-point-of-failure.

Measuring the success of your policy

But how will you know your policy works? How will you know which staff are teleworking, how often, and what benefits the agency is getting from it? Conversely, which staff are not teleworking and hence need to have verified plans for long-term office closures? For location-specific roles that are not telework eligible, are there technical or process improvements which could convert these into telework eligible roles? 

In government agencies, and large organizations, questions like these are typically answered by manually gathering data and then writing recurring reports which are shared with various stakeholders. It’s a time-consuming process that does not lend itself to relevancy. Over time, more details and data are added to these recurring reports, so they take longer to write and are generated less frequently. They take longer to read, the original intent becomes obscured, and the data is less timely because it all took so long to gather and write… Eventually the focus is more about the recurring reports than about the metrics that were supposed to be measured.

There is a better way. To find out how well your telework policy (or any other initiative) is working for your organization, it’s important to:

(1) Measure what matters

(2) Report it clearly and automatically

(3) Act on it strategically

The State of California Department of General Services (DGS) is doing exactly that with their recently released telework dashboard, which tracks key metrics on remote work at the organizational level. This is just one piece of a larger site that DGS created to help agency managers and employees build effective telework environments that empower teams to do their jobs well — from anywhere.

So how does this telework dashboard represent such a success in the realm of measuring things that matter to inform strategic decision-making? Here are four important aspects of this work, and how others can quickly do the same during these times when resilient organizations matter more than ever.

1. Use the data you already have

It’s important to note that DGS didn’t have to track new data — or create new manual reporting requirements. The dashboard uses data that’s already automatically tracked in various existing systems. The “only” tricky part was to gather the data from those very different systems, combine them carefully and visualize it all in ways that showed their strategic importance.

Since the dashboard uses live data pulled from various in-house operational systems, it’s automatically updated when people join or leave the agency, move to a new house, or change offices or roles. Thus the dashboard continually matches reality — no one has to spend time gathering revised data or writing new reports.

It’s also worth noting that DGS pushes this data automatically to the state’s open data portal, making it usable by other agencies who wish to follow the lead of DGS by publishing their telework metrics in similar formats. Also, anyone can freely use the data from this open data portal in new and innovative ways.

2. Plan for long-term disaster resilience

Most disaster resilience planning is usually focused on short-term scenarios (for example, a microwave fire in the kitchen or a snow day). These types of situations are typically resolved within a day or two, so people can catch up on lost time by working harder for a few days once they’re back in the office. However, most short-term disaster planning doesn’t account for the type of long-term closures happening today. After all, there’s no “catching up” from missed work caused by months-long office closures — people must be prepared and able to continue doing their roles from outside the now-closed usual place of business.

But how? Long-term disasters are much harder to prepare for, and even harder to rehearse for. Rehearsing a multi-month office closure would be a huge expense and disruption to daily operations. 

The telework dashboard helps with this by tracking data on which agency staff must be in the physical office building because their role is deemed “telework ineligible”. This data helps leaders pinpoint operational exposures from clusters of “telework ineligible” roles and prepare disaster resilience plans specific to those groups. Finally, they can see where modernizing existing processes might help them convert those “telework ineligible” roles into “telework eligible” roles that can be performed remotely — further improving the agency’s resilience (and service delivery in general).

3. Improve telework policy utilization

Even in cases where telework is a viable option, government agencies historically have extremely low utilization of telework opportunities. Before COVID-19, the number of government employees working remotely was commonly in the single-digit percentages. For many large corporations, the stats were disturbingly similar.

But imagine if the people who could telework were doing so regularly — they would literally be “rehearsing” for long-term disaster resilience every time they worked from home!

Additionally, in the world we now live in, utilization of telework wherever possible can help curb the spread of coronavirus by reducing contact risks for those who must still work from the office because their role is location-dependent. In short, it’s definitely in the government’s best interest to have an effective telework policy and to encourage its usage as much as possible.

Once again, the intent of this telework dashboard is to assist in making strategic improvements. Agency leadership can now easily see if people who can telework actually do — and how often. If the telework policy utilization rate is low — even for people who can feasibly work remotely — it’s worth figuring out why. Does the policy need updating to account for technology advances? Are there hidden cultural or trust issues that discourage remote work? Lack of a secured private space or internet connectivity at home? Lack of training? Are in-office legacy systems inaccessible from outside the building? Identifying these gaps and making strategic improvements will help agencies build a more modern and resilient workforce — and it all starts by observing the data.

4. Measurably combat climate change

Typically, when organizations talk about reducing their carbon footprint, they focus on things like using more efficient lighting and HVAC systems, reducing paper usage, and changing product packaging — all good things to do. However, data from the California Air Resource Board shows that carbon emissions from personal passenger vehicles equal 28% of all emissions — and by far the largest segment of emissions across the state. 

Most of this is from people in single-occupant cars, driving to and from work in stop-and-go traffic (which is the most inefficient possible way for an internal combustion engine to operate). The single biggest impact your organization can have on climate change is likely to reduce your number of daily commuters.

So how does telework data help us here? Measuring data on carbon footprint sounds difficult — but agencies already have all the data they need to start tracking this effectively, and DGS has done a great job of showing this in their telework dashboard. 

You already know where your employees live (because you send out tax forms and other paperwork via “snail mail” to their homes). You also know where your employees work (because this is tracked in HR and door badging systems). By exporting that data into a GIS system, you suddenly know exactly how many miles your entire staff commute every day. As more people work remotely, those savings increase.

Measuring the numbers of a telecommuting workforce at an organizational level demonstrates how remote work at your agency can directly impact climate change. The scale of this can be rather astonishing. Just last week, DGS staff who telecommuted reduced their agency carbon emissions by 80 metric tons. Sounds a lot, but I had no frame of reference, so I looked it up. Flying nonstop from SFO to NYC and back requires 1.15 metric tons. So, the people at DGS who worked remotely last week reduced their agency’s carbon footprint by the same amount as NOT flying 70 round trips between San Francisco and New York City — in just one week. Pretty impressive. And it’s measurable, thanks to their approach of tracking telework data.

Data driven strategy for a more resilient future

This DGS dashboard gathers live data from various existing sources and combines them in ways that uncover strategically important information in a timely manner. The agency can immediately see and measure the ROI of their telework policies and activities, and it helps everyone across the whole organization work more effectively together on issues that matter to everyone — driving organizational resilience improvements.

In this time when leaders of organizations and public service agencies are dealing with multiple existential challenges, this approach of automatically “measuring what matters” helps leaders make better, more informed strategic decisions.

(This post has been modified since it was first published on TechWire.net)

TV interview about long-term Remote Work in Government

On GovMatters TV yesterday, Grace and myself were interviewed about “telework” and “remote work” in government. And specifically about doing long term remote/distributed work.

This touches a lot of complex topics, so there was plenty to cover in a very short amount of time, which made for a very intense, information dense interview that was also somehow relaxing and fun to be part of. Thanks Francis and Charis for making this tricky balancing act possible – and all while physically distributed!

Topics ranged from how to improve diversity of staff in government including Millennials and GenZ – to trends in private industry away from (or back to) offices – to improving the disaster resilience of a government agency by making sure any specific government building is not a single point of failure for the organization. 

If you missed it live, you can watch it here:

I hope you find it helpful and informative – as always, if you have any questions, we’d love to hear from you.

Economic Recovery with Distributed Teams – RemoteAID 2020

For the RemoteAid event on 20apr2020, I was honored to be the closing speaker. The full session is recorded below, but the topic and setting were unusual, so it feels important to give some context.

Obviously, there was plenty of concern about the COVID-19 pandemic as a health concern – various national lockdowns and closures were just starting to happen. Day by day news was startling, with new outbreaks and closures globally. In turn, this was causing a large downturn in economies across the world, with people losing their jobs and many businesses closing permanently.

Under the circumstances, it felt important to remind people of a different perspective that I thought might be empowering and helpful.

The attendees were already comfortable working online, in distributed-teams, so I focused on how they could use their existing proven skills to help others and at the same time also help revive their local economy.

The “easy, familiar ways of working online” may not be so obvious to others who don’t routinely work that way. So, I asked attendees to help others.

It can feel uncomfortable at first to leave a familiar echo chamber, where most others you talk with are also already comfortable working online – just like you do. Instead, I asked people to go find people and businesses in their own hyper local neighborhood who they might not typically interact with and ask them how you can help. Help them learn the personal and business skills they need to survive in these challenging times. Showing teachers how to suddenly teach classes online – after years to only teaching in-person – and brainstorming some practical local ideas to help improve internet connectivity for any of their students left out by the digital divide. Helping a neighbor doctor understand how to use the new buggy tele-medicine applications foisted on them at short notice. Helping a local sandwich shop start taking online orders and online payments. Coordinating online food deliveries to vulnerable groups under lockdown who can no longer go shopping for themselves, yet have no experience of how to safely shop online. Explaining secure online payments and how to avoid scams. Explaining security essentials. Explain how to use video software to connect and talk with family members elsewhere. Answering these, and a 1,001 other questions like these, is an immediately practical way to help a struggling neighbor or neighborhood business.

Yes, these are challenging times – personally and professionally – for us all. Its important that those of us who already routinely work online use our existing skills to help others who are not yet comfortable online. We can use these skills to bring practical immediate help to our local communities and help rebuild each of our local economies.

The RemoteAid event was quickly setup, as an online fundraiser for Red Cross, when the organizers cancelled their RunningRemote conference because of COVID-19. Nice, fast turnaround work by Egor, Danny and the rest of the group for putting this event together, so professionally and so quickly in such short notice.

Distributed Teams at Women In Tech Initiative, UC Berkeley

On Thurs 16July2020, Jill Finlayson will be moderating a panel about Distributed Teams and HR with Valerie L. Williams, Brandie Nonnecke, Ph.D. and myself. Given the combined deep background knowledge and practical experience, it should be interesting and lively – certainly, all our prep calls have been!

This event is the kickoff of a new Expert Seminar Series for UC Berkeley Extension, Berkeley Global and the Women In Technology Initiative at University of California, Berkeley – a project I’m very excited to see coming together and delighted to be part of.

For more information and to register, see: https://bit.ly/2NsAAdF

Interview on eRepublic’s ICYMI

I recently talked with e.Republic’s Chief Innovation Officer Dustin Haisler and Vice President of Research Joe Morris on their weekly ICYMI video session.

Obviously, we talked a little about my “Distributed Teams” book, but most of the time we discussed the new mainstream reality of Distributed Teams in Government, including the work we’re doing on DistributedGov.

The trend from office to “work-from-anywhere” has been accelerating in private industry in recent years because of many factors – including generational changes, cultural changes and the competitive advantage of hiring people who live beyond commute range of your physical office building.

Then COVID-19 forced the issue.

While government has supported “telework” for decades, the default for government employees in most agencies was still to work in a government office. With COVID-19, government agencies found themselves suddenly and quickly needing to shift entire agencies to telework. This means transitioning *lots* of people. In a hurry. Some agencies I talked with only had same-day notice to transition literally thousands of people. Each with lots of agency specific issues around security, network bottleneck, server load, data privacy and human training to work through. While massive transitions like this obviously hit bumps, their ability to roll-with-the-punches, improvise-where-needed and quickly get reliable, security solutions in place was impressive.

Now, a couple of months later, most of the surprise gotchas have been figured out, or worked around. There’s still lots to be correctly stressed about but work life has settled into a new rhythm. A strange, different rhythm, but still – a rhythm. In this rhythm, work is still being done, and all the long-term benefits – for hiring, retention, workforce diversity and disaster planning – are becoming very apparent to government agency leadership.

With this context, discussions about returning to the office are now being balanced with discussions like “when will COVID-19 be contained enough to safely return to offices?”, “how do people safely get to/from the office?” and “what do we have to physically change to make the office workplace safe?”. The many complicated practical steps needed to make offices safe are still being figured out and worked on. Meanwhile, another question is becoming harder to ignore: “We’ve shown we can work from home for months now – so why do we even need to go back to the office?”

Dustin, Joe and I had a great, lively, wide-ranging discussion across all of these topics – and yes, we even got to talk about time machines! Watch it for yourself and let me know what you think.

ps: This was my first time doing an interview that was live streamed onto linkedin.com, and all the mechanics/logistics went quite smoothly! Nice work, Dustin and Joe!

20 Tweet Checklist for Distributed Team Leaders

Migrating from working in an office to working from home is tricky and takes careful effort. This is even trickier when done at short notice and for prolonged periods of time (like scenarios triggered by COVID-19). And then, of course, there is the extra complexity of leading, coordinating and managing others while physically distributed! If you are in this situation, I hope you find this checklist helpful.

  • (1) LeadByExample: Read and do everything on the manag-ee list. Crisp clear communications are live-or-die essential in a distributed team.
  • (2) GroupChat: Arrange channels carefully. Moderate who is in them, discussing what, where. Prune obsolete channels. Be a constant gardener.
  • (3) GroupChat: The phrase “I cant keep up with all the channels” is a warning sign. Remind everyone that all chat is transient.
  • (4) SingleSourceOfTruth: Multiple communication channels make it hard to know what’s going on. Agree on one place as accurate SSoT. Use it.
  • (5) SingleSourceOfTruth: If emails & project docs are inconsistent, people hold status meetings. If SSoT accurate, hold fewer status meetings.
  • (6) SingleSourceOfTruth: Brainstorm ideas anywhere. If you discover something others should know, your work isn’t done until you update SSoT.
  • (7) SingleSourceOfTruth: Don’t ask for status. Do ask where to find status. (Dont ask people to write things down then ignore what they write)
  • (8) SingleSourceOfTruth: Read SSoT before asking people questions. If you still have questions, then ask and get the answer added to SSoT.
  • (9) Meetings: Make sure every meeting invite has a link to the video call and a link to the shared editable document for agenda/notes.
  • (10) Meetings: Have people *append* items to the shared agenda, including topics added during meeting. Get better notes and better inclusion.
  • (11) Meetings: Don’t ask someone to take notes. Do ask *everyone* to take shared notes. Use the shared agenda doc for also taking shared notes.
  • (12) Meetings: As people join, say hello and comment on their video. This helps them informally test audio and fix errors before meeting starts.
  • (13) Culture: Use video in all meetings. Video meetings are usually faster than audio-only mtgs and video helps if tricky conversations arise.
  • (14) Culture: Have 1x1s every week. 30mins every week is better than 60mins every two weeks. Always on head-and-shoulders camera.
  • (15) Culture: Isolation is a real concern. Encourage ad-hoc coffee breaks and schedule weekly group “social meetings”. On video, as usual.
  • (16) Culture: Weekly “virtual happy hour” meetings, on video, help team cohesion – if people can talk freely and the “boss” talks the *least*
  • (17) Hiring: Are you hiring “the best person for the job”? Or “the best person for the job who lives near your office or is willing to relocate”?
  • (18) RealCostOfAnOffice: Physical offices cost money to lease, operate and maintain. Compare those hidden costs with costs of distributed teams.
  • (19) RealCostOfAnOffice: Why spend good money on physical offices in order to create a single point of failure for your organization?

These 20 tweet-able protips are obviously intentionally short. If you have questions on any of these, you can find more details in my book: Distributed Teams: The Art and Practice of Working Together While Physically Apart. Or of course, just ask me – I’d be happy to help.


Exponential Organisations (ExO) Podcast

I was recently invited onto the Exponential Organisations (ExO) podcast by Lance Peppler – and the recording is now publicly available here and via your local podcast supplier.

Our recording date had been scheduled weeks before COVID-19 became top-of-mind here in US, and South Africa, but the timing of this podcast discussion now feels very, very, relevant.

We covered some topics from my book about how to work effectively while physically distributed, as well as why distributed teams (working from home, etc) are good for business – including workforce diversity, ability to hire and retain, and of course office real estate costs. In these COVID-19 days, of course, we also allocated a bunch of time discussing how COVID-19 has forced a sudden, widespread, change to how most “knowledge workers” actually do their work and handle prolonged “disaster” events like this. Including of course, an interesting discussion on whether we will return to the way worklife was before (the “old normal”) or are we going to have a permanently changed “new normal”?

Have a listen, and let us know what you think!

Effective Distributed Teams in Government

I’m extending my free video training sessions until the end of April. I’ve also broadened the audience to include government employees, government contractors and civictech/NGO groups that work with government. For more info and to register, see here: https://civicactions.com/distributed-government

As always, these webinars focus on practical mechanical tips+tricks, suggestions to reduce work disruptions as well as help keep the humans connected as a team over a prolonged period… all with lots of Q+A to make sure it is immediately helpful to those who attend. Based on changing demand, I’m changing some of these sessions to be deep-dives on specific requested topics:

  • Running large remote meetings with 50+ people
  • Running effective and secure remote meetings
  • Knowing what others are working on and staying in sync
  • Dealing with isolation, trust, and team cohesion

All are free.

For those of you who attended any sessions (running since 11March!), and found them helpful, please do help spread the word. The goal of these sessions is still the same – we need government services to work in a crisis – so these sessions are to help government services keep running, even when the humans who work in government are suddenly not able to go into their usual government buildings. If you work in government (at any level), and your team suddenly transitioned from “working in a government office building” to distributed teams / telework / remote / “work from home”, these are for you.

Also, if you think it would help to arrange a dedicated session for your team, separate from these webinars, just let me know and I’ll be happy to do that too.

Speaking at RemoteAID today – how you (yes, you!) can help…

Today is RemoteAID conference.

This free day-long event is fully online, in these #covid-19 times and is helping raise donations for the Red Cross. I’ll be the closing speaker on main stage at the end of the day, with “How You (Yes, You!) Can Help Rebuild Economies”.

Come join this conference, learn tips and tricks from an amazing collection of seasoned industry leaders and share your knowledge with others. This looks to be an exciting day, Chris Herd, David Heinemeier Hansson, Jo Palmer, Paul Estes and Tracy Keogh were the first 5 to make me stop and go “wow”, but you should see the entire list at https://runningremote.com/remote-aid-agenda/.

See you all later today?