Texas GSA office makes telecommuting work

klunney@govexec.com

The concept of telecommuting has received a lukewarm reception from many federal managers, but one General Services Administration supervisor in Texas says the agency, his employees and their customers have all benefited from flexible workplace policies.

Bob Skinner, head of the General Services Adminstration's National Energy and Water Management Center in Ft. Worth, and the six employees he supervises work from home five days a week. All are at the GS-11 and GS-12 levels.

November will mark the five-year anniversary of the office's flexiplace program, and Skinner says it would take "a stick of dynamite" to force him to go back to a traditional office arrangement. He said employees in the office met five years ago to discuss the pros and cons of telecommuting, and made the final decision to implement the idea in November 1995.

"We decided that we wanted to do this [telecommuting] to do a better job for our customers, not for personal reasons," he said.

According to Skinner, the results have been impressive. Overall, he said telecommuting has increased productivity within the office. Employees have more time to focus on GSA's customers now that they don't have to worry about grueling commutes or becoming distracted by colleagues.

And GSA's customers couldn't be more pleased, said Skinner. The office has received more superior service kudos from customers-known as "fast-track awards"-since telecommuting took effect.

"Now, working at home, my people can catch calls from our West Coast customers. Before, the calls just went to an office space," said Skinner.

Skinner emphasized that although some people have switched their hours to suit customers, everyone works an eight-hour day-a concern raised by unions.

The National Energy and Water Management Center is responsible for paying utility bills in GSA buildings nationwide. The Center's staff reviews and processes approximately 5,500 utility bills monthly, the total cost of which is more than $250 million annually. Skinner said employees do most of their work with customers via phone, e-mail and fax.

Once a week, one employee travels to the main office in Ft. Worth to pick up the mail and sort bills.

Skinner said telecommuting has drastically reduced the amount of sick leave and other leave requested by employees. "I haven't been sick once since I've been working at home," he said. He said that as a single parent, he often had to take time off to care for son whenever he became ill. Now, because he works at home, his schedule is much more flexible.

Last month, the PricewaterhouseCoopers Endowment for the Business of Government released a report saying most managers were unenthused about the concept of telecommuting, fearing it would create more work for them and make employees less productive. Skinner acknowledged that his office is "tailor-made" for telecommuting, saying it takes the right combination of people and jobs to make it work.

The report, Managing Telecommuting in the Federal Government, said some employees participating in flexiplace felt isolated from co-workers, and complained having to provide their own work equipment, such as computers, software and phone lines. Not so in the Ft. Worth office, according to Skinner. He said the group gets together for birthdays and other special occasions, and frequently stays in touch via phone and e-mail.

Skinner said the government pays for all work-related equipment, including computers, phone and fax lines, in employees' homes.

"This is a win-win-win situation. The boss is happy, the employee is happy, and the customer is happy," said Skinner.

Dr. Wendell Joice, who heads up GSA's Governmentwide Telework and Workplace Initiative Team, said Skinner's attitude about telecommuting is not typical of many federal managers. "In general, like any major cultural change in the workforce, managers view [telecommuting] with some concern," he said.

Joice said it is very unusual for managers like Skinner to telecommute themselves, because they think they need to be on-site to constantly supervise employees.

Joice said telework can be applied much more broadly. He said there are tasks in any job which can performed outside of the office. Even doctors, for example, who typically need to be on-site, can perform tasks, such as writing reports, from home.

President Clinton directed federal agencies in 1994 to promote telecommuting to create a more family-friendly workplace. GSA has led the effort in expanding flexiplace throughout the federal government.

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