National Institute of Environment Health Science


Location: Durham, NC

Employees: 675

Start of Telework Program: 2000, but major increase since 2012

Contact: Claire Long, Management Analyst and Telework Coordinator


Things to Think About When Starting a Telework Program

It is important to think through lots of scenarios in advance. It can certainly be helpful to have policies and 1-pagers based on those scenarios, but it is very useful just to have an understanding of all the different possible things that can happen or situations that can arise and have a general plan so you aren’t making things up as you go along.

A great way to ensure you think through each scenario is by providing lots of opportunities for people to share and provide feedback. In the beginning, teleworkers and managers will have many unanswered questions, so it can be really useful just to get everyone together and think through these questions together, with a variety of stakeholders in the room.

Keys to Managing a Successful Telework Program

We have an approval process that all employees need to go through before they begin teleworking. This can be an incredibly helpful as it helps us track how many people are interested, how often they plan on teleworking, where they plan on being when they telework, etc. We also have time tracking sheets that help us make sure employees are working on the tasks that they say they are going to while they telework.

We also have found it important to articulate to managers that even “approved” employees aren’t guaranteed teleworking status. The actual day-to-day decision of allowing an employee to telework is up to their supervisor, who can make that call based on particular projects, workloads, meetings, etc.

As I mentioned earlier, providing lots of opportunities for sharing and feedback is critical too. We do many trainings around teleworking, such as how to use different software technologies, or for supervisors, ways of managing from afar. Along with making people’s jobs easier, these are also great opportunities to get feedback from people about what is working and what isn’t. Based on this, as well as regular employee surveys, we are constantly adapting and improving the program.

Technology Considerations in Telework Programs

Personally, I’ve found that far more important than any specific software that you use, is making sure people are comfortable using that software. Provide easy training and guidance so that people can leverage all of the benefits of a technology that you have.

We’ve also had some great success with instant messaging software, such as Slack or Skype Messaging. When people aren’t at their desks as much, this type of tool can be great for replacing the short conversations that happen around the water cooler or at someone’s desk, the more informal discussions that are quite valuable for employees.

Overcoming Downsides of Teleworking

When people are in the office less, I think it requires people to re-think what workplace culture looks like and what it means to be a team. I think there needs to be more of a deliberateness about creating a sense of togetherness and belonging, and in-particular, really take advantage of the time that everyone is in the same place at the same time to build those relationships. We do a lot of training on this for supervisors.

Another challenge we’ve run into is the desire to use telework as a substitute for sick time or dependent care. We really try and stick to a hard line on this. If someone is feeling sick, our suggestions is that they stay home, rest, and get better instead of trying to work while “taking it easy.” For dependent care, we stress that if a dependent needs consistent attention, then you can’t really dedicate your time to work, and therefore it can’t work.

Additional Advice from your Experience with Teleworking

I would just remind people that teleworking will always look different for different people and different situations. At NIEHS we’ve been able to provide telework options to not only our administrative staff, but to scientists as well, though it may be less frequent and look a bit different. But nonetheless, when we try different options we usually find that people thrive on telework time and it can actually make them more productive when at the office, or in the lab.

I’d also stress that when considering eligibility of employees for teleworkers, we’ve found that professional characteristics often look very similar whether someone is teleworking or not. For example, if an individual is consistently late on deadlines, and suggests that they get too distracted at the office, we’ve found that the tardiness likely won’t be solved through a teleworking arrangement.