Can Trinidad and Tobago's public service ever work remotely?
WHEN THE Prime Minister declared after the reading of the budget September 26 that the Government wasn't pursuing a work-from-home (WFH) policy, it was a state-level rejection of the concept.
This followed a March statement by former agriculture minister Clarence Rambharat that a WFH policy was being pursued.
In July, Public Administration Minister Allyson West promised that the Government's WFH policy would be completed by year-end and rolled out to all ministries.
If West and Rambharat were true to their word, the Government's WFH policy is "No." Which would be the most succinct government policy statement ever issued.
What is the Government giving up by refusing to consider WFH arrangements for public servants with any seriousness or enthusiasm?
The Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 codifies how remote work in done in the US public service.
Among the specifications it outlines is the difference between telework (employee reports to the office on an infrequent but defined schedule) and remote work, which becomes the office, and headquarters is visited only when required.
At a June 2021 webinar, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) posed these quite relevant questions:
"What has been learned about remote working in this last year? How do public servants expect to be working in the future? How can governments design new policies today to bridge the gap?"
At an Amcham webinar in July 2021 (https://bit.ly/3Memmul), Chief Personnel Officer Daryl Dindial explained the situation the public service faced.
"In the first wave, there was a significant loss of productivity, since the system just was not there. Over a few months or so, a lot of people started to use and understand the importance of maximising the technologies available to them and there was a better understanding of how we could use what exists to continue work, but there are still significant challenges with monitoring and evaluation of what happens when people are not [present] at any workspace."
Is the Prime Minister right when he notes that, "Some people not even working in the office"?
An inability to establish an effective correlation between the presence of labour and measurable output isn't just a problem in WFH scenarios.
Remote work monitoring solutions like mouse click, key-press monitoring and remote document surveillance have only created environments of annoyance and resentment that parallel the "massa coming" response to in-person supervisor surveillance.
Where performance indicators are present in the workplace and agreed on between management and labour, the tone and delivery of work fundamentally change.
The OECD found, "The association of presence with productivity is being replaced in most knowledge-based (and office-based) workplaces with a focus on outputs and outcomes."
"Modern management should care less about the number of hours in the office than they do about the quality and quantity an employee is able to produce, regardless of where they do it from."
Focus on the worker
CPO Dindial noted that an important attribute for remote work is the workers’ capacity for self-leadership.
"The public perception and the perception of public officers, if they're not being monitored and assessed properly, is what are they going to do when they're in their own space, in their own environment? Are they going to be driving the work as we expect them to?" Dindial said.
Every worker won't be able to work remotely. Some jobs require in-person presence, but among knowledge workers, presumption should begin from the position that work can be done remotely.
Remote work isn't easier. Employees have the dual challenge of completing tasks while ensuring that they are part of the organisation's formal and informal networks of knowledge transfer. Successful WFH implementations reflect the importance of ensuring that everyone feels that they are part of the workforce.
"Trust," the OECD found, "is a fundamental aspect of a positive workplace culture. In some cases, remote working may have helped improve trust by proving that presence is not a precondition for productivity."
Regrettably, the Government's statements on WFH suggest that it has discovered something different in the TT public service. That should be a matter for urgent investigation and analysis.
Being unable to offer remote work as an option for the type of employees it hopes to attract for digital transformation will compound poorer pay compared to the private sector, abusive traffic congestion, limited opportunities for advancement and crippling bureaucracy as disincentives for exactly the kind of talent that could transform the public service.
Mark Lyndersay is the editor of technewstt.com. An expanded version of this column can be found there
"Can Trinidad and Tobago’s public service ever work remotely?"