Headlines matter.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently completed—and the Washington Post just reported ona study of the costs and benefits of the government’s massive Telework program. (At least 365,000 of a million eligible employees are occasional or full-time teleworkers.)

The title of the Post’s piece was: “More feds are working from home. But no one has figured out whether that’s really a good thing.”

I’ve read the 43-page GAO report. Its title, “Federal Telework: Better Guidance Could Help Agencies Calculate Benefits and Costs” is much more fair but nowhere near as catchy as the Post’s. To GAO’s credit, their report and title do not risk challenging the value of telework for no reason. And they don’t conflate the failure to decisively prove a claim with the absence of that benefit.

The heart of the report itself is the repeated demonstration that the claims of cost savings and organizational benefits by the six cooperating agencies are sometimes—and sometimes not—supported by hard data. This apparent “data gap” could have many sources:

  • people aren’t collecting the large amounts of data being generated
  • agencies don’t know how to design and deliver analytics
  • some of the benefits being claimed for telework are hard to measure and prove
  • favorable data on the programs don’t exist and bad news is suppressed

Analysis Costs Money 

Reading through the report, it seems that the first three items above contribute to a problem. The last one doesn’t. There does not seem to be dissatisfaction with telecommuting in the agencies, and there is no hint that they are covering up bad news. Functionally, work at home seems to work. The report cites numerous benefits and some examples of cost reduction.

And that’s both good news and the problem. Accounts of benefits and cost savings tend to be largely anecdotal. Many of the positive claims from real estate savings and positive environmental impacts to enhanced productivity and work-life balance are common in telework programs. But these are hard to prove and back up with solid data collection and analysis. And worse for the Federal program, all such claims are put to the test by a rigorous audit/research agency like the GAO.

Full or Partial Cost Saving?  

I came away from this report with the clear conclusion that too much expertise and time was being asked of the agencies with too little training, support, and collaboration to accomplish competent evaluation of this massive program. OPM (the Office of Personnel Management) is trying to help, but its resources are limited; the agencies want to cooperate but lack the people, time, and tools to succeed. OPM offers to consult to agencies on a fee-for-service basis, but these are times of agency budget slashing, not fattening. So where should the resources come from?

I am reminded of a conversation I had some time ago with a client at the dawning of the era of cost-driven, fully home-based work. In discussing best practices to pursue for their new program, I suggested manager and participant training. He looked at me with a quizzical expression and said, “You realize that this is a cost-cutting, not a cost-increasing program, don’t you? We have a budget and new costs aren’t welcome.”

The fact is that the “better guidance” suggested by GAO will not come cheap. A lesson for the Federal government and private sector telework programs drawn from best practices may be this: before banking hard savings like real estate, utilities, and travel vouchers, design and ­fund the sophisticated assessment system that will demonstrate the many benefits and long-term cost savings of a healthy initiative. It’s a hard lesson to put into practice, but some saving is better than none.

And of equal importance, in this continued age of skepticism around the benefits of flex, be careful what claims you make for a program. You might have to back them up. And if a telework program can’t prove its gains (no matter how significant they might be), it leaves itself open to a headline or description like the one in the Post: “No one has figured out whether it’s really a good thing.”

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