Friday, June 15, 2012

It's still 1985: California state offices stuck in pre-Internet management mode

While riding in a cab in downtown Sacramento this week — the daily commute destination of thousands of State of California employees — the usual topics of weather and traffic came up.  The driver offered his solution to traffic congestion: rather than commute to work, state employees should stay off the roads and work remotely from home offices.  After all, the cabbie pointed out, the technology allowing them to do so has been in place for many years.  They can get their work done on a computer from home just as easily as their office.  So why aren’t more state employees teleworking, he asked?

The explanation appears in a January 2008 white paper prepared by a group of state employees, the Statewide Work Anywhere Team (SWAT).  The paper notes use of information technology “is uniquely positioned to further the state’s ‘Green initiatives’ by contributing solutions for larger issues facing California: traffic congestion, dependence on oil, air pollution, and quality of life to name a few. It is possible to perform work from virtually anywhere. We can do business better. Work Anywhere provides one viable option that we should fully explore.”  It adds, “[w]orking from anywhere and using virtual teams are integral to the success of today’s workforce” and recommends “the State of California initiate a statewide standard for expanding the concept into its work environment.”
So why hasn’t the state more widely adopted telework four years after the paper was issued?  Despite the bulk of the work being white collar, information and knowledge work, a blue collar shop floor management by observation culture dominates.  The paper explains:
Many program area managers and executives are hesitant to implement Work Anywhere strategies/policies due to concerns regarding monitoring staff productivity and the staff’s ability to perform their duties effectively from a remote site (usually their home) without immediate access to other workers. Additionally, there is concern on monitoring staff that under-perform. The main challenges mentioned by all contacted in the study were the importance of determining the types of duties that are easily measurable and candidate selection requirements for performing tasks that could be part of a Work Anywhere plan. The most often stated concern was how to quickly manage employees that are out of sight. Some of the examples of telecommuting floundered because they lacked executive sponsorship, clear performance measurements or procedures for implementation of the policies. Additionally, some of the managers indicated an interest in receiving additional training for developing skills to better manage employees who work away from the main office.
That remains the case today.  In September 2011, the then head of the Telework Advisory Group of California’s Department of General Services, Geoff McLennan, reported only about five percent out of a state workforce of about 240,000 telework.  More recent data would put the number even lower.  As older state workers retire in large numbers and as the economy slowly recovers, younger workers accustomed to being connected to the Internet from anywhere aren’t likely going to find state employment and its pre-Internet, 1980s office culture an attractive option.   


Angela DiVertas said...

It's clear to me that if the work isn't getting done, it will be obvious. The real issue here is more of a trust factor (or a control factor).

It's simple--if a worker doesn't complete the work, get rid of him/her. There are statistics that show telecommuters tend to increase production when they are given a chance to work remotely.

Ryan A said...

Fred - Thanks for your article. This outdated management model/org culture is a big deterrent to members of Generation Y (age 30 and under). In fact, many of my classmates which interned in a government agency were so put off by the culture that they choose other sectors of employment once they graduated.

It's time for change. Public sector work is too important to be stuck in the past.

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