Location: Orange County, NC
Start of Telework Program: November, 2016
Contact: Brennan Bouma, Sustainability Program Coordinator
Things to Think About When Starting a Telework Program
In establishing a telework program, partnership with the Human Resources department is essential. It is hard to make a “one size fits all” policy for teleworking. Your telework policy ends up touching on a lot of the ways you do business; you have to think about performance management a different way. Telework policies interact with flex time policies and can end up sitting in the middle between an employee and their supervisor as a framework for measuring performance from a distance.
Our program began with a petition from the Board of Orange County Commissioners for our staff to look into setting up a telework program. We wanted to keep things as simple and lightweight as possible. We actually found during our initial setup that a lot of employees were already teleworking; it was common for employees to work from home without referring to it formally as teleworking.
We reviewed model telework policies and used the models to create a draft policy, which went through several rounds of revision after asking for input from Information Technology (IT), Human Resources (HR), and asking for advice from the regional Transportation Demand Management (TDM) program. Involving HR and IT was critical. Once we had a fully vetted draft, we reached out to department heads to try to figure out what the initial impact of the Telework program would be on the County’s network and overall operations. We also let them know that department heads, supervisors, and employees would all be involved with approving telework applications to increase their comfort with the policy.
Keys to Managing a Successful Telework Program
It is important to be very clear about who telework will work for and to direct interested employees to start by talking with their supervisors. In our case, most department heads were comfortable with eligible employees teleworking one or two days per month in the beginning. For those who have filled out an application to telework, most people choose not to set up a regular telework schedule, but to use it on as “as-needed” basis. In these cases, we ask them to communicate with their supervisors to get approval every time.
Tracking program participation has been somewhat tricky, but our TDM Coordinator plans to look at how many employees have gone through the telework application process and training and compare this to those reporting using telework through surveys. Filling the gap between those who have signed up to telework and those who are actually doing so can help inform our TDM Coordinator’s work in promoting the program going forward.
Technology Considerations in Telework Programs
When the program was first launched, the IT department was nervous that if teleworking was made available to every employee, then on day one everyone would try to log in and the network may not be able to handle it. Because of these initial concerns, we ended up adding several questions to the Telework application about the technology and telephones workers were planning to use, which differs from department to department. Before we began the program, we figured out from department heads how many employees possible teleworking would apply to and how many employees they would approve. We came up with an average of about 10% of employees. Participation is likely at a higher level now, but this initial estimate made IT more comfortable and paved the way to launching the program. There have not been any issues with overloading the network.
If employees choosing to telework have a County-provided laptop, it comes with a virtual private network (VPN) installed. In that case, employees can telework easily and securely. If someone without a laptop is approved to telework infrequently, IT requests that they check out a loaner laptop on those days so that all information is secured. For Orange County, there is currently no way to put VPN on an employee’s personal laptop since the IT department will not work on non-County computers. However, there are certain circumstances where you don’t need a computer to telework—working in paper files, working on a report or grant application, etc. In these cases, teleworking can be a useful practice to safeguard uninterrupted time to focus on a high-priority task. When a loaner laptop is unavailable, the IT department said that files can be safely emailed to an employee’s home email address, though care must be taken to uphold public records requirements. IT strongly discourages the use of portable USB drives to transport files as this creates undue information security risks.
Overcoming Downsides of Teleworking
Our costs for having a telework program have been minimal. It took a lot of staff time to go through the program development process and figure out what would work best for us, given the models we found to base our policy on. We ended up with a policy that includes a mandatory application and training which some find inconvenient or unnecessary, especially if they’ve been teleworking informally. Now that the program is established, staff time can be used to improve the convenience of our training process for those beginning telework. We’ve shortened the training to 30 minutes and I will go to the office of the employee who needs to be trained. The next step may be to further streamline the training and offer an online version.
One concern we’ve found is that there is a tension between some supervisors not wanting us to publicize the availability of this program because they are worried about it creating false expectations for employees who they feel are ineligible. We know that teleworking is consistently one of the most desirable alternatives to commuting for County employees, but some supervisors aren’t initially comfortable with it. I’m hoping that over time, it will become more accepted as we communicate its benefits to productivity as well as employee quality of life. As long as we are clear in our communications that telework eligibility discussions begin with supervisors, we will set appropriate expectations and support the supervisors in their eligibility determinations.
Additional Advice from your Experience with Teleworking
Overall, we’ve found that telework programs are worthwhile, it is a good retention tool, and it is something people want. Those looking to implement a program should be prepared for it to take time to set up and for people to get used to it. I would advise that you interact early and often with HR and IT. It also helps if you have clear political direction from the leadership. If you can start with a good model Telework policy or program, from an organization that is similar to yours, you can save a lot of time and trouble in setting up your own program.