Commentary

A micromanagement masterpiece: Where telework works, why mess with it?

June 13, 2022 6:38 am

Gov. Glenn Youngkin signs legislation in February ending school mask mandates. His proposed amendments to recently passed legislation would give Virginia’s state health commissioner total discretion over local health director appointments, a change some worry could undermine trust in public health authority. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

On some level, the notion is understandable and meritorious. Old-school management wants to see employees at their desks ready to go on time, bright-eyed, dressed for success and brimming with enthusiasm.

So, perhaps thinking old school, Gov. Glenn Youngkin saw merit in his May 3 dictate that all state employees who’ve been working from home for more than two years shall return to their 9-to-5 lives in state office buildings by July 5 unless they’ve requested and been granted waivers, in some cases with approval necessary from the most senior aide to the governor himself.

You read that right. It’s not a misprint. Here’s the plan.

Suppose an auditor or procurement specialist or data technician in some state agency wants to work from home a day a week. Under Youngkin’s decree, that is a decision that only the statewide director of that agency can make. If the employee requests two days, the request is escalated to the relevant secretary in Youngkin’s cabinet. Those with the temerity to seek three or more days a week working remotely would have to get dispensation directly from Younkin’s chief of staff, Jeff Goettman. Employees had to tender those requests, citing health or personal reasons, by May 20.

Right away, this masterwork of micromanagement belied any suggestion that efficiency drove the policy. An unwieldy construct that defies scalability, it seemed inevitable that Team Youngkin would blow right through its self-imposed June 3 deadline for vetting those employee requests – and it did.

Even as a candidate, Youngkin made clear his antipathy for the protocols and precautions that the coronavirus necessitated starting in early 2020. It’s very popular with the Republican base, by the way: be done with masks, get kids back into classrooms, make vaccines optional.

And, truth be told, it feels damn good indulging the idea that this fast-mutating virus from hell took its best shot and, a million or so U.S. deaths later, we’re still going. It was nice on a recent flight to and from California knowing that we passengers could pull down our masks without risking a mile-high imbroglio or to belly up to the bar last week at a favored watering hole I hadn’t visited since February 2020.

But those safeguards, despised though some were, clearly saved lives and kept our hospitals and medical care infrastructure from collapsing until science and the America’s unparalleled manufacturing might, set at full throttle by the Trump White House, produced enough vaccines in record time to turn the tide in the fight against the illness.

One of those safeguards was working from home. And a strange thing happened in those many months when business districts in Richmond, Norfolk, Alexandria, Roanoke and elsewhere became ghost towns: productivity from staff working remotely did not suffer. In fact, it held its own and, in many cases, improved, according to a 2021 workplace survey by the global accounting and business services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The report said that businesses would gradually bring more people back into the office as companies moved toward a flexible hybrid office model where many workers would rotate in and out of shared spaces in an office, allowing workers to blend time on-site with colleagues and others to telecommute. The model makes them less a prisoner to the clock and empowers them to balance the personal and the professional.

Clearly, not all jobs can be done anywhere you can find an internet connection. Buses, Ubers, 18-wheelers and jetliners don’t drive themselves (yet), and nobody’s figured out how to do it using a joystick from mom’s basement. The pandemic rightly made heroes of nurses and doctors and orderlies who risked (and sometimes lost) their own lives during the contagion’s darkest days in an often futile fight to save strangers’ lives. Highways have to be paved, burst pipes and HVAC systems have to be fixed, fires have to be extinguished and bad guys have to be arrested. You can’t do that from your sofa.

In the information marketplace, many professionals have found the independence of telework liberating and motivating. Others, however, found it distracting and confining and yearned for a return to the old normal of the office where they feel more productive, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, a nonprofit and nonpartisan think tank.

It showed that 59 percent of workers whose jobs can be performed remotely have chosen that option all or most of the time even as their offices reopen. But while 64 percent said it improved their work/personal life balance, six in 10 said they felt less connected to colleagues.

Even as offices reopen – still mindful that a new variant of the virus could scuttle everything in a matter of weeks – the allure of telework has been a powerful tool for employers in intellect- and data-heavy industries who compete fiercely with one another for top talent. Firms that imposed rigid back-to-the-office requirements found themselves trailing the pack and had to relax it to be competitive.

It’s clear that more work will shift back to offices, but that comes with financial considerations for both the employer and the employee.

Companies and agencies that embrace telework have the opportunity to realize savings by reducing their real estate footprint – fewer square feet to lease, heat and cool. Even before the pandemic, some employers were experimenting with replacing permanent designated offices with workspaces or meeting rooms that employees can reserve for the day, a concept called “office hoteling.”

And, through generous use of remote work, employees also realize savings that take on greater import amid staggering inflation and out-of-control gasoline price hikes. Crunching the numbers helps illustrate how things add up.

It’s likely, at least initially, that dress codes may be a bit more relaxed than pre-pandemic couture. I’m glad my retirement portfolio wasn’t heavily leveraged in companies that make neckties. But you can’t go back to the office and put in eight hours in a bath robe, sandals, baggy gym shorts and a faded Grateful Dead T-shirt. Prices for new men’s suits at Joseph A. Bank this week started at $299. That didn’t include dress shirts or pocket squares.

Then there’s the drive to the office and back with gas approaching the unfathomable benchmark of five bucks per gallon in Virginia, up 6 percent in the past week and 14 percent since mid-May. If it continues at that pace up to the Independence Day holiday, the average Virginia price per gallon will be nearly $5.50 a gallon by the time state workers return to their offices the next day.

Let’s use my daily commute from a few years ago as a template. My trip was right at 12 miles each way, or 120 miles a week. With the average mileage of American cars just over 25 miles per gallon in 2019, the latest year for which data are available, that comes to about 4.7 gallons per week, or about 19 gallons a month. At $5.50 per gallon for regular, that’s just over $103.50 a month for fuel alone, not counting parking costs, wear-and-tear and the value of time and productivity forfeited to driving.

Then, unless you brown-bag it, toss in an extra sawbuck each day for lunch, meaning you’re out another $200 a month.

I’m sure I’ve missed other costs, but you get the picture.

The bottom line for a manager – or even the governor – is this: if an employee’s getting the job done telecommuting, why arbitrarily command that he or she fill a seat in a cubicle in a commercial building somewhere? There are ways to determine who excels working from home, who needs the regimented life of the office, and who really should be put on notice. Surely the state does annual, if not quarterly, job reviews.

And the great thing about online work is it gives bosses a rich digital trail of performance metrics on their direct reports, making it impossible to fudge who was logged in and working and when, and what was accomplished. And surely folks deeper on the org chart than a cabinet member or the governor’s chief of staff can parse that.

It also shows conclusively who’s meeting deadlines – and who’s missing them.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]

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