Remote work and performance management
Although transitioning to widespread remote work was challenging, after more than a year of working this way we now know that in most situations, it has not resulted in substantially reduced productivity. We also know that most employees are highly satisfied with their current mobility and want to continue working remotely in the future. (Source: 2020 State Employee Engagement Survey) We also know that certain types of work, and engagement, cannot be accomplished remotely. A telework arrangement that includes some days on-site and some days remote can meet business and employee needs.
As the state begins to plan for employees to return to physical offices, many agencies are requesting clarity from State HR on how telework and performance management should be addressed for remote workers in the long term. At this point, we do not see evidence that performance management need look substantially different for teleworkers than for on-site workers. But there are some specific considerations agencies and supervisors should keep in mind for managing a remote workforce.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, many state agencies’ telework policy documents contained language describing traits and behaviors required for an employee to be a successful teleworker. These policies were based on concerns about the employee’s ability to work effectively from a non-state office location and reflected a desire to maintain clear expectations about telework as a contingent employee benefit.
In March 2020, Governor Inslee issued Proclamation 20-05 declaring a state of emergency in all counties in the state of Washington. The governor directed state agencies to shift as many employees as possible to remote work. In that moment, telework ceased to be a contingent benefit and became an employer mandate; it was the only way that large portions of the state workforce could continue safely working to serve Washington.
While many positions are not eligible for telework based upon the duties and business needs throughout the pandemic we have learned, as an employer, that with thoughtful performance management, appropriate tools and sufficient organizational support teleworkers can be successful. Based on the facts above, we strongly recommend that executive branch agencies adopt the following long-term approach to managing the performance of their workforce when working remotely. All other agencies, the legislative and judicial branches, higher education institutions, boards, commissions and offices are encouraged to adopt this approach.
Frequent and intentional communication between supervisors and teleworking employees is necessary to make remote work successful. Expectations for the employee should be clear, documented, and revisited often to ensure the employee and the supervisor have a shared understanding of the employee’s performance, their strengths, and any areas where they need to improve.
Employees and supervisors should also discuss options for a work schedule that will allow employees to meet their job duties and to exercise flexibility while teleworking to take care of any non-work needs such as caring for dependents (of any age). Executive Order 16-07, Building a Modern Work Environment [PDF], directs agencies to “build a modern work environment and create an organizational culture that empowers employees with choice, enables excellent performance, supports all generations, and is mindful of our impact on the environment.” Supporting employees and providing adequate notice when changes are made to the schedule or expectations is a critical part of this work.
Before making the final determination that a teleworking employee is not able to effectively accomplish their assigned work remotely, the supervisor should discuss and document performance concerns with the teleworking employee just as they would with an on-site employee. The exact process of performance management is established in WAC, CBAs and agency policy. Generally, employees should have the opportunity to address performance concerns before a final decision to withdraw approval is made. Such a process should be discussed when a telework plan is established.
The employer should provide as much notice as possible before withdrawing approval to telework. Best practice indicates that a 30-day notice is most likely to meet business needs and the need for an employee to rearrange their life to work on-site. During this time, supervisors and employees can periodically check in on performance and adjust course accordingly if the employee demonstrates sufficient improvement.
This notice period is not intended to apply in situations where occasional or infrequent operational needs of the employer require the employee to return on-site. Agencies are strongly encouraged to make permanent recall of employees a thoughtful and well planned out process. Employers are encouraged to set out required on-site days/hours in the telework agreement in advance and should provide as much notice as possible for those occasional requests to return on-site, recognizing that making changes to a routine without notice is disruptive to an employee’s life. Supervisors and employees should discuss how these situations will be handled by both parties in advance, when establishing the telework agreement.
Agencies may be concerned about the need to provide notice prior to withdrawing approval to work from home. Providing notice is intended to give the employee enough time to make any personal arrangements necessary to allow them to return on-site not to impair the ability of the business to respond appropriately to an urgent business need.
In order to reap the benefits of remote work for both the employer and the employee, agencies need to consider the realities that continue to face employees and employers. Providing reasonable notice and working through performance concerns with employees before making changes to a remote work arrangement are reasonable steps to take. They allow employees to depend on their employer’s commitment to supporting mobility and a human-centered work environment. They also increase the likelihood that employees will remain with the agency and to help build a positive reputation of the agency as an employer of choice.
We learned through the COVID era that the state can attract employees from “all over” when work can be accomplished remotely. This tool can help to diversify the workforce with expanded access to jobs. Conversely, the State faces considerable risk of increased turnover, reduced productivity and diminished workforce participation by some demographic groups if does not continue supporting telework for employees. Allowing and supporting successful remote work benefits the employee and the employer. It's a way to ensure operational resilience and higher rates of retention for the state workforce.
Flexibility and support matterOffering employees supportive options for more flexibility, including remote work, is intended to make it possible for people to continue to work, rather than taking leaves of absence or leaving the workforce entirely — a goal that diminishes inequities and benefits employees, agencies and those we serve.
Nothing in this document is intended to reduce the employer’s authority to determine which positions are eligible for telework, or to what extent a position’s duties may allow telework. Not all positions that can work remotely are able to do so full-time. There are some types of work that must be performed on-site to meet operational needs, and identifying that work is the purview of the agency. The guidance above is intended to address only situations where an employee holds a position designated as telework-eligible because they perform some amount of work that can be accomplished remotely.
In response to the practical realities facing state workers at the beginning of the pandemic and the statewide Stay Home Stay Healthy order, OFM State HR issued clarifying guidance in March of 2020 explicitly directing agencies to waive any policy requirement which prohibited caring for others while teleworking.
Since then, experience has demonstrated that many state employees can still perform their duties successfully while working remotely and caring for dependents. Many required flexible schedules to do so.
Recent research has also shown that a lack of dependent care has prompted substantial numbers of women to drop out of the workforce. The U.S. sees an estimated $12.7B loss in productivity due to reduced workforce participation and missed workdays related to dependent care. Reducing turn-over and unplanned leave use by establishing flexible and supportive practices serves the interests of the State as well as the impacted employees.
Moving forward, state executive branch agencies should either remove or not reinstitute any previous language in their remote work policies which prohibits caring for others while working remotely. Caring for others shall not preclude a state employee from teleworking, although the employer reserves the right to revisit or withdraw approval to telework if the employee is not able to effectively perform their assigned work.
- OFM State HR remote work resources
- State HR supporting working parents and caregivers – August 2020 COVID-19 guidance
- Child Care Crisis in Washington State (Dept. of Commerce)
- SHRM infographic - Navigating COVID-19: Returning to the workplace [PDF]
- Federal Reserve Board, Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households, May 2021