Will “results only” rules for federal workers deliver good results?

It’s one small step for 400 people – but could turn into a huge change for the federal government.

The United States Office of Personnel Management has announced that it will implement a pilot “results only” work program for 400 federal employees – allowing them to work wherever, whenever, and however they want, and evaluating them only by the results they produce.

If successful, it could lead to widespread changes, and greater flexibility, for government employees at every level.

Saybrook scholars who work with governments say they are impressed – but that programs like this aren’t always easy to get right.

“The devil is in the details, as they say,” says Gary Metcalf, an Organizational Systems faculty member who teaches at the Federal Executive Institute of the U.S. government.  “How it actually works will depend a great deal on the targets they set, and how they get measured.  Some people will do better with it than others.  Also, it takes more discipline to run your own schedule, and some people don’t do that well.”

Still, he’s excited by the prospect.  “Conceptually it sounds like a huge step forward – well beyond what many corporations are ready for yet.  If the expected amount of work for each person remains relatively the same, though, and employees feel like outcomes are evaluated fairly, I think the end result could be really positive.”

Nancy Southern, co-chair of Saybrook’s Organizational Systems programs and a frequent consultant to government, says it’s an idea whose time has come. 

“Flexible work environments are critically important today and provide people an opportunity to stay involved in their children’s schools and local communities,” she says. “Not having to commute to an office everyday supports both environmental sustainability and quality of life. Families and communities are strengthened and people feel they can do their work around their life schedule rather than create their life around their work schedule.”

As a result, Southern is confident that the Office of Personnel Management is on to something.  The question is if they’re preparing federal employees adequately for the culture shift about to happen in their work place.

“Structuring work around results assumes that managers have a systemic view of the work and know how to set goals and create engagement processes that foster continuous improvement,” she says.  “With people working at a distance, there is the need to know how to effectively engage via meeting management software and other communication and work tools.   People still need to feel a part of an organizational community that keeps them connected to the importance of the work and ensures that they feel they are valued contributors.  Even when working at a distance, most people like to know that co-workers, managers, and other colleagues are close at hand, and can be reached when needed.”

If that can be accomplished, Southern says, “tying the flexible schedule to a results orientation could be a good approach to provide clear expectations and enable people to meet those expectations,” and could be good for both the government and the people and communities served.

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