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The Pros and Cons of Telecommuting to a Government Gig

The option is catching on among public-sector employers as a way to attract and retain employees.

As the public sector is increasingly turning to telework as it seeks to improve how it recruits and retains employees.
Weight loss is hard. In San Jose, Calif., though, people who work for the city say their employer is making it easier.

How? Teleworking. In 2014, San Jose formally started letting its employees work some days from home. One municipal worker claims to have lost 15 pounds and four inches since she started with the program. "My cholesterol level is under control now, and I sleep better," says Reena Brilliot, the point person on the city's efforts to expand its teleworking program.

As the public sector seeks to improve how it recruits and retains employees, human resources officials say teleworking is growing as a way to offer a better work-life balance. The option has never been more important: Competition for the best and the brightest is intense thanks to low unemployment rates and reduced public service benefits, among other things.

According to the Center for State and Local Government Excellence, a nonprofit research organization, 22 percent of state and local governments offer telecommuting for eligible positions. (Obviously, that doesn't include essential personnel such as firefighters, police officers and sanitation workers).

“Teleworking is still catching on as people realize that they can do a lot of their jobs at home as easily as at work,” says Karen Marshall, director of human resources for Rockville, Md.

As more and more government employees begin their work days inside their homes, it's worth considering the pros and cons of telecommuting.

In San Jose, the option has improved relations between employees and their managers. The city's formal program requires employees to specify the days they plan to telework, although most employees have made informal arrangements with their supervisors. “This has created an environment in which people feel that they can talk to their supervisors," says Brilliot, "and that’s changed the culture here."

The Maryland Department of Budget and Management recently published a brief that touts the benefits of telework:

  • “Most teleworkers report that they get more done and are more satisfied with their jobs as a result of teleworking.”
  • “The shortened commute decreases employee travel expenses and commuting stress ... while increasing the amount of time teleworkers have for professional and personal pursuits.”
  • “Teleworkers also enjoy a greater degree of work-related autonomy and responsibility.”
  • "Properly handled, teleworking can make it easier to manage dependent-care arrangements and create job opportunities for employees with disabilities.
Of course, like most things, there are a few obstacles to telecommuting that have impeded many employers and employees from taking advantage of the opportunity.

For one, employees may not be able to do all of their work at home. Expanding access to the databases and systems that government workers use to their home computers could prove time-consuming, costly and impossible. Letting employees work on personal devices may also raise security concerns. 

What’s more, the alternatives to face-to-face contact can be less than perfect. Emails often lack nuance and clarity, and when it comes to conference calls, “you can’t read the faces,” says Karen Niparko, human resources director for Denver. Problems can also arise when “workers suffer from a lack of comradery,” says Marshall. 

Others worry that teleworking employees might slack off. But those fears are generally not valid. According to a study by Mary Noonan, associate professor at the University of Iowa, people typically work three hours more each week when they’re putting in some of their time at home. 

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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