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Who Needs a Desk? Tennessee Takes Telework to the Max

The state's new approach to the workplace goes far beyond traditional telecommuting. It's not only making employees and managers happier, it's saving the state millions of dollars.

For Tennessee state workers, the concept of individual offices, cubicles and desks, arranged with family photos and bobbleheads, is becoming a thing of the past.
(Tennessee State Government)
In recent years, Carmelita Hillsman spent more than three hours a day getting to and from her government job in downtown Nashville. 

Not anymore. 

Now, she starts working each day for the Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities at 6:30 a.m. from her home office, using a state-purchased computer. She doesn’t even have an office in the department’s headquarters.  

“This is more flexible,” she says. “I avoid traffic. I spend more time with my family, and I absolutely get more work done because there is less distraction.”

Among Tennessee state workers, Hillsman’s not that special. In her department alone, 72 percent of employees telework most of the time. They’re all participating in the state’s ambitious initiative, called Alternative Workplace Solutions (AWS), to transform its workplace. It goes far beyond traditional approaches to telecommuting, in which employees occasionally work from home but still spend most of the time in a central location. 

In exchange for giving up their desk or office, participating employees can work remotely (either at home or in the field) full- or part-time. When they do come into the office, they can select from a variety of seating options -- standing desks, lounge areas, conference rooms. They have lockers for personal possessions. The best schedule for each person is evaluated individually. Some employees come into the central office twice a week. Hillsman generally comes once a month, or more, if there are meetings she needs to be in.

The concept of individual offices, cubicles and desks, arranged with family photos and bobbleheads, is becoming a thing of the past. 

Since mid-2016, when the program launched, 16 departments have given employees the option, with 6,000 of them taking it. About 27,000 of the Tennessee executive branch’s 38,000 employees could eventually be eligible, according to Evan Smith, a senior management consultant who runs the AWS program. 

The idea came about when Reen Baskin, then the deputy commissioner of the Department of General Services, was asked to reduce the state’s office space. She soon realized that consolidating it had numerous other advantages. 

In the first two years of implementation, AWS has racked up an impressive record of benefits. According to internal Tennessee surveys, 60 percent of managers say employees have improved productivity and 80 percent of employees say they have a better work-life balance. Participating agencies have recorded a 37 percent reduction in sick leave use, and the state estimates that the average employee is saving $1,800 a year on gas. By the end of this fiscal year, Tennessee says it will have likely cut its real-estate rental costs by $6.5 million. Next year, it plans to sell one of its downtown Nashville office buildings, which is no longer needed. That could give the state an extra $40 to $60 million. 

The results have other states, including North Carolina and Utah, intrigued, according to Smith.

While the program is wildly popular, setting it up hasn’t been easy. 

“Early on, the resisters were at the managerial level,” says Trish Holliday, the state’s chief learning officer. “Managers didn’t know how to get the work done if they didn’t have everybody there.”

To solve that problem, an intensive training process now precedes implementation of AWS in each department. Employees and managers learn the importance of clear expectations and of focusing on results. Constant communication and team-building exercises get a lot of emphasis.

David Purkey, commissioner of the Department of Safety and Homeland Security, was a skeptic at first. “I was of the opinion that everyone needed an office or a cubicle to have their stuff and be accountable to their colleagues, their supervisors and the public,” he says. He also worried about how having so many employees working remotely would affect his management style, which involved walking around the office, talking with people in hallways and visiting employee offices. 

But once the program started, he realized the work wasn’t suffering and that employees were happy and more likely to stay on the job. 

“We want to retain our people," he says. "That changed my mind.”

Other managers who have been through the transition say that constant communication and state support were critical to their success. 

“You need to have the state committed to this,” says Greg Gonzales, commissioner of financial institutions, one of the first departments to participate. “If you don’t move state government as a whole substantially toward the AWS objective, then it would be difficult for individual departments to do this on their own.”

The legislature has provided $18.5 million for the rollout of AWS. With the help of that funding, the state has been dramatically remodelling offices and upgrading their IT infrastructure. Departments have also accelerated efforts to digitize paper files and are focused on improving communications technology so that team members can easily stay in touch with each other and share information online safely and seamlessly. 

This appears in the Management newsletter. Subscribe for free.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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