I’ve been following the TBS announcements, as most government employees have been, trying to figure out if and when they will tell us simply to work from home across the board. Right now, managers are told to be as supportive as possible for people wanting to work from home. Yet we can’t even call it telework as most of them will have no “tele” options at all — many don’t have a connection or app to connect remotely, and for those who do, most networks don’t have the bandwidth or server power to handle EVERYONE logging in remotely.
On Reddit, one user started a thread and included the phrase:
Let’s be honest- in many cases we actually can work from home and should absolutely be doing so.
I don’t know if they are a manager who has ever managed telework employees or are an employee who has ever worked from home more than a day or two, but the level of assumptions in that statement suggests to me that the answer is neither.
Most organizations, government or otherwise, are extremely “place-based” centres of work. Outside of coding, most companies and businesses require you to be onsite in order to sell stuff, deal with customers, serve food, work in a mine, drill for oil, etc. Most are not set up for e-delivery or even e-working. There are entire academic disciplines on this for the future of work, and have been for over 40 years. The Utopian ideal of “living in a remote cabin and working in a virtual office” hasn’t manifested itself yet.
Look at universities…almost all have cancelled classes and are “moving” things online. But that is a combination of videos and email. It isn’t true networking or e-delivery, it is “hey, no classes, but I’ll do some cheap ass video and pretend it’s a lecture.” Universities have had the technology to move ALL of their stuff online for years, yet the vast majority is still delivered in person. Watch the tension this coming week as professors who can barely type suddenly have to offer online classes vs. some other professors who will do great and think, “Hmm, why am I bothering to have people come to class if I can do this?”.
Government work is no different. We don’t have the infrastructure, the bandwidth, skills or training to manage at a distance, even if / when the work could be delivered that way. People think alternative work arrangements, hoteling, etc are suddenly going to lead to a mass increase in distance working / teleworking, and I appreciate their efforts, but their assumptions that it will happen tomorrow is overly optimistic.
So let’s look at some simple classifications…the vast majority of AS or PM positions either support or process stuff. Can you do that from home? Not unless you have a connection.
The paperwork can’t get to you easily, we can’t scan everything, you need to be able to do stuff in online databases / financial systems, email tracking, etc. Most of it also contains info about either Canadians or other employees, and you can’t work on it at home without violating just about every privacy legislation code we have. We don’t have secure filing cabinets, secure connections, nada. So what are the AS group going to “administer” easily? The short answer is not much. They can take a few things home that will get them a couple of days down the road, but if they don’t have a connection, most of their work will grind to a halt. They are e-enabled for just about everything at work. And if you’re a PM at Service Canada, we need you at work to process all the new claims coming in so affected Canadians have some money, most of which have systems that are uber protected with all the SIN numbers of every Cdn in the country. Not going to open those systems up from home.
For the EC community, we can likely write memos, most of our work is unclassified, well, EXCEPT at this time of year when tons of it is related to budget secrecy. So what else can you do at home without your work connection? Research? Sure. For awhile. Meetings by phone or computer? Sure, but since many EC’s work is responsive to demands from above, some of that demand is going to diminish. Trends and analysis? Well, all your stats aren’t coming with you, since the data sets are likely too big to access at home. Audits and evaluations? Hard to submit your requests for docs to people who don’t have access to their docs. Corporate planning? Ground to a halt since the only priority is the virus.
But let’s back up, and simply ask ourselves what you need to work from home effectively in any government telework / work-from-home / work-at-a-distance situation:
A. First and foremost, you need a type of work that is amenable to being done remotely for a sustainable period (not just a day here or a day there). With creativity, I suspect you can get that up to 20% of the government’s work, the rest not so much. And that is even excluding the Service Canada folks delivering benefits to Canadians. If we REALLY get innovative, you might get that up to 40% over time, but even that I think is radically more aggressive than any MPs will be willing to agree to. People complain the manager won’t trust employees working from home; if you think the MANAGER is skeptical, wait until MPs hear from Canadians who already think government workers don’t do anything anyway.
B. Secondly, you need employees who are effective at working from home. Working from home does not mean tending your kids all day so you don’t have to pay daycare while being interrupted every 10 minutes to entertain them. And with schools and daycares currently closed, this will be the reality for many during the coming weeks. In addition, they need to be comfortable working in relative isolation without becoming demoralized, unfocused, distracted by the latest binge-watch option from Disney+. I’m not talking “lazy gits” who will milk the system, I am talking more like mild introverts to extreme extroverts going into Castaway isolation where you start talking to volleyballs because you’re all alone all day.
If you’re into the Insights Discovery lego block personality types, blues do better at adapting to working at home, while greens and yellows go crazy without regular meaningful contact, and reds adapt. There are ways to cope for each group, but generally, analytical introverts who generally hate people anyway like working from home, the rest have to adapt. There is a reason why a lot of “blue” writers working on their novels and movie scripts do so in coffee shops — they need some regular human contact.
Some parts are great — fewer interruptions, no commute, etc. But you also miss out on the informal info sharing. Oh, look, Jennifer just came back from a meeting with the boss and is sharing info as she passes by, which happens in the office, but if Jennifer goes to her desk, she doesn’t feel it is big enough to send an email. So if you’re not at your desk because you don’t have a desk there, you don’t know what happened until a formal meeting or update later.
C. We also need managers who are not only open-minded about telework and trusting of the employees to be producing, but ones who actually know how to manage at a distance. I’ve done this, and I’m generally considered a more personnel-friendly manager than most. Yet I will admit that it’s tough AF.
For example, oh, look, there’s a new tasking, it just came out, let’s rally three people to get on it, due in an hour, let’s get going. Oh, did I think to call the person who’s working at home? No, I rounded up the three people in front of me and threw us all in a room to work it out. Can I call them? Sure. Will I always think to? Nope. I should, don’t get me wrong, but it is a mental adjustment for managers to remember. Just like Jennifer in the previous scenario.
But it takes managerial discipline and practice…regular phone check-ins, heavy use of messaging apps, etc. And the recognition that while certain types of work are more amenable to doing face-to-face, you can try to find a way to restructure it so it can be done at a distance. Many managers give in to the default of giving longer-term research type projects to telework people because it is amenable to doing alone anywhere and the “hot files” to the people in the office.
D. Perhaps as a precondition of teleworking, we need the technical infrastructure that supports telework. Not just having a computer at home, or even a remote connection, but fast bandwidth, a home printer, paying for people’s internet or a share of their internet, headsets, ergonomic setups, quick video conferencing at the touch of a button not ad hoc options through Zoom or Slack or WebEx or WhatsApp. Dedicated tools that run off your desktop for managers and teleworkers. If I can’t stop by your cubicle to give you the latest update, or I can’t include you in a quick brainstorming huddle by clicking a video conferencing button, you’re missing out. We think we’re being supportive when we do teleconferencing in meeting rooms…pffft. How about video conferencing from your desktop as the minimum?
E. For success to happen, you also need to form a team that works well in a hybrid world. If telework approvals are opaque, the questions come pretty fast. “Why is Johnny working from home? I’d like to work from home too!” Even when Johnny is a researcher doing a three-month slow project and the person asking is the administrative assistant who coordinates all the paper traffic in the office on quick turnarounds using the internal protected system. There are always going to be some jobs that are place-based, at least in the short-term (as I said, we could aggressively innovate processes that might help with that, but not on 2 days’ notice). But more than the internal issues, the team needs training and practice in working in a hybrid world too so they remember to call Johnny at home and include him in the discussion, him on things, ask him questions, include him in brainstorming. We have phones, we need to use them, even while we’re waiting for video conferencing to catch up.
But if we need:
- “telework-able” types of work and processes
- + employees trained and effective at working at a distance
- + managers who know how to manage at a distance
- + instrastructure, not to “cope” with distance, but to embrace and support it
- + teams that are trained to work in hybrid environments,
we definitely don’t have that currently. And telling people to work from home will work for some workers for about two days and then they’ll have nothing to do other than CSPS or SABA training.
For those who have managed employees at a distance, it often works “best” when regardless of the other variable, the employee is self-motivated to work at a distance. Actively calling in, regular production of work, a clear demonstration of availability, creative solutions to work. Passive people who sit back and wait for the manager to send them something to do start to look like slackers who aren’t producing, and it is often reflected in their performance assessments when it comes to competencies like initiative and working with others.
I’ve seen a lot of people working at a distance for extended periods of time, and just about every time, I see their career take a hit. At most, they get “succeeded” in their rating. It is almost impossible to get approval for “succeeded+” or even higher if you are not visible to the management team on a regular basis. That’s not necessarily a deal-breaker for some people, but the culture is nowhere near ready to support/embrace telework. At best, we seem to be still at the “tolerate” stage. Everyone is working to get there, and maybe I’m just pessimistic, but I don’t see it “switching” in time for wild success in the next 2-3 weeks or longer. It will be a good eye-opener for a lot of people, just as it will be for universities.
Heck, we even had challenges for snow days — people who could log in or who could make it into work “having to work” while others stayed home and still got paid. Extend that over several weeks, and the dysfunction is going to grow even more.
Just my opinion, of course, as an “ok, (stick-in-the-mud) Boomer”.