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.

“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” recorded at Fishburners, Sydney

In Jan 2019, I wrote about being invited to talk at Fishburners, in Sydney Australia while I was there. It was recorded, so I’m finally posting the recording here for the curious.

It was a great evening, with a great turnout and good lively questions before, during and after. Thanks again Brian, Cat and everyone at Fishburners for helping make this happen.

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

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!