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FCW : March 30, 2015
I recently read a report in Harvard Business Review about an experi- ment conducted at a company called Ctrip, China’s largest travel agency, on a topic that has been the subject of much debate and controversy in the U.S. government: telework. In a nine-month experiment that involved employees of the compa- ny’s call center, the staff was divided into two groups. Members of one group continued doing their jobs at the office, and members of the other group performed their work from home. The company did not do what is often done in such circumstances — namely, it did not solicit volun- teers for telework and then com- pare their performance with those who chose to work at the office. The problem with comparing vol- unteers and non-volunteers is there might well be differences between the two types of people that influ- ence performance. Instead, the company solicited volunteers and then divided that group based on whether individu- als had an odd- or even-numbered birthday. The comparison was thus between two groups whose mem- bers had all volunteered to work remotely. The groups continued to work the same shifts with the same man- agers and equipment as before, allowing a before-and-after com- parison for each group. The com- pany also kept extensive, computer- ized records of the times employees were working, the sales they made and the quality of their interactions with customers. The results were fascinating. During the nine months of the experiment, teleworkers’ productiv- ity increased 13 percent compared with those employees’ baseline, while the productivity of those who stayed in the office was unchanged. Most of the productivity gains came from increased working hours because teleworkers took fewer breaks and sick days. Pro- ductivity per minute worked was also somewhat greater, however. Employees stated in a survey that the quiet of working at home made them more efficient. Turnover during the nine-month experiment was 50 percent less for teleworkers than for those in the office. Telework, of course, also economizes on office space, one of the most important reasons the company undertook the experiment. There was an unexpected result, however: After the experiment was over, half the teleworkers asked to return to the office, and three-quar- ters of those who had stayed in the office turned down an offer to tele- work. Why? People complained they were lonely when they worked at home — long live the office cooler (or its Chinese equivalent)! This sug- gests that perhaps telework should be a part-time thing (though there might be issues with duplicating the office-assigned equipment some employees use). These results should be carefully noted by federal personnel manag- ers and policy-makers. However, there are two important reasons that the results might not be transferable to a government environment. First, Ctrip had good quantita- tive performance measures for work input, output and results. If an agency does not have those, the productivity results might be nega- tive in the absence of a supervisor’s ability to observe employee behavior directly. Second, the jobs were performed by individuals in isolation. For work that must be done in teams, physical interaction might well be better than a virtual team environment. But the overwhelming news from this important study is that tele- work, under the right conditions, really works. I believe this study should ignite a movement to find more federal workplaces where it can be used. n When telework really works The results of a Chinese company’s well-documented experiment with telework hold important lessons for federal managers Teleworkers’ productivity increased 13 percent, while the productivity of those who stayed in the office was unchanged. Commentary|STEVE KELMAN 10 March 30, 2015 FCW.COM STEVE KELMAN is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. 0330fcw_010.indd 10 3/9/15 3:41 PM
March 15, 2015
April 15, 2015