PDT 2020 — Session W111: Telework — The Workplace of the Future?

By Mary Margaret Yodzis 

You know the adage: “Be careful what you wish for; it might come true!” Now that most of the profession has experienced some form of telework in response to COVID-19, enough data and anecdotal evidence exists to begin to analyze whether working from home is really working. An expert panel moderated by Marc Hebert, a director at RMA Associates, explored the topic in AGA’s virtual PDT 20 last July, pointing out benefits and challenges in “the new normal.” The session, W111, was entitled “Telework — The Workplace of the Future?”

Panelist Kelly Stefanko, CGFM, CPA, audit manager of the National Science Foundation Office of the Inspector General, has worked from home for a decade. While pandemic telework is markedly different from typical telework, she said the current experience will prove to advance the practice as the way of the future. “When you work from home,” she noted, “there’s a sense of ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ The pandemic was an equalizer, forcing everyone to work from home — bosses included.”

The Benefits of Telework

Societal benefits of large-scale telework practices in the government financial profession, said Stefanko, include:

  • A reduced carbon footprint.
  • Elimination of expensive office rent or utilities for employers.
  • Less traffic congestion.

For employers, telework offers the possibility of expanded recruitment. “You can have the best and brightest people work for you, regardless of where they live,” Stefanko noted. “And think about the benefits of increased retention. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to keep valued staff — in whom you have invested lots of time and money to train and develop — when life forces them to move away from the office?”

Other benefits cited are improved productivity and better staff meetings. “Everyone has the ability to be seen and heard as individuals during Zoom and Microsoft Team meetings,” explained Stefanko. Pre-pandemic, in-office staff gathered for meetings while teleworkers attended through a screen, “and we couldn’t really participate in the meeting as equals. One of my concerns, when we talk about going back to the office, is whether we are going back to meetings like this. I am hopeful this is our past. It has been a great aid and equalizer to see everyone’s face versus the backs of their heads.”

Stefanko encouraged PDT attendees to take advantage of the opportunity presented by online meetings. “Turn on your camera and be present,” she said. “This provides a feeling of connection. As a full-time teleworker, I feel it is a cop-out to say ‘I’m not dressed for a meeting’ or ‘I’m not presentable for the screen’ when teleworking, because I am working! Be prepared to be seen; it is a courtesy to those you are meeting with. Being able to see each other’s facial expressions helps a lot. Being able to see everyone provides accountability to stay focused because we all know how easy it is to get into the habit of multitasking and only half paying attention to the conversation.”

Some best practices in telework, Stefanko’s said, include:

  • A daily routine in a dedicated workspace.
  • Frequently standing up to move around and stretch.
  • Trustworthiness, or doing what you say you will do.
  • Invest in getting to know your colleagues.
  • Communicate in various ways, knowing “one size does not fit all.”

“When I was first allowed to have my home duty station, I knew I was a torchbearer for those after me. So, I made a personal commitment to work as hard as I could to set a good example and achieve success to show that this works. Recognize your importance and your responsibility in changing work for future generations, and please, don’t take telework for granted!”

The Challenges of Telework

Panelists Damian Wilson and Kimberly Jackson explored the challenges of telework from a managerial perspective, including odd work hours, loss of body language cues in communication, loss of collaboration, procedural changes, and longer work hours. Jackson, finance director of the National Labor Relations Board, began the segment with a presentation on the “four telework dimensions” used by the Office of Personnel Management to assess telework effectiveness, which includes:

  1. Telework satisfaction of employees and supervisors.
  2. Knowledge of telework eligibility under agency and OPM rules.
  3. Perceptions of performance management, whether an employee works in the office or from home.
  4. Engagement in the telework environment.

Wilson, director of financial audit for the U.S. Agency for International Development, said government managers learn in leadership training “to treat our employees differently, yet still treat them fairly. It is important to have empathy for your employees — just being there for them — but to hold everyone accountable. The work is the same, whether you’re in the office or not. Lately, we’ve been forced to evolve as a workforce, and I think it is for good going forward.”

Flexibility is critical, noted Jackson. “We have employees who are parents of young children, and they must be engaged more with their children’s schoolwork and other duties right now. Conventional work hours might not work. Some employees may have to start work at six o’clock in the evening and go into the wee hours of the morning. To facilitate engagement at work, we can implement ways to bring them into the mix,” she explained, such as setting times for mandatory meetings to keep communication flowing but allowing the completion of tasks at times when the employee can focus on work. Otherwise, she added, “You’re just not going to get the best out of that employee.”