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 is now being viewed as a viable long-term option for agencies looking to build resilience for the organization as well as the workforce.

But there’s a catch. Government employees must already be comfortable working effectively outside the office before a surprise office closure forces people home. Otherwise the learning curve of telework is so steep that it counteracts many of the potential benefits.

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 during the time offices were 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 disruptive. Thirty years later, this scenario is painfully similar to what many federal and state agencies went through when COVID-19 forced office closures earlier this year.

Having a telework 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. Simply writing a policy doesn’t mean your staff will use 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 or internet access) and handle unique challenges (like data privacy) by surfacing these issues in their actual daily work. 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 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 telework 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 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, 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:

  • Measure what matters
  • Report it automatically
  • 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 ideas on the value of this approach, and how other agencies can do the same during these poignant times when resilient government services 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 systems and visualize it in ways that showed its 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.

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.

The dashboard shows up-to-date info on how many DGS staff are teleworking

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? 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 equals 28% of all emissions -- and by far the largest segment of emissions across the state.

Data from the California Air Resource Board shows carbon emissions from personal passenger vehicles equal 28% of all emissions.

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.

The dashboard shows commute distribution for DGS staff.

You already know where your employees live (because you send out tax forms and other paperwork via “snail mail”) -- and 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.

The dashboard shows savings estimates per week, including CO2 emissions avoided.

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. Flying nonstop from SFO to NYC and back requires 1.15 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. 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. At a time in history where public service teams are more accountable than ever to making smart, data-based decisions, this is literally “measuring what matters” to improve strategic decisions.

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John O’Duinn is the author of “Distributed Teams: The Art and Practice of Working Together While Physically Apart.” He served in the U.S. Digital Service in the Obama White House and has provided workshops and mentorship to distributed teams around the world. He is currently Senior Strategist at CivicActions, working to help agencies build remote work capabilities through the DistributedGov suite of training and resources on distributed teams in government.