Agencies see telecommuting savings, GSA says

The concept of telecommuting, while still in its infancy, is already saving the government money, according to a new General Services Administration report.

In the report, Wendell Joice, head of GSA's Governmentwide Telework and Workplace Initiative Team, traces the history of telecommuting, discussing its impact on disabled employees, the benefits on the environment, and the practicality of using satellite offices during emergency situations.

According to an October 1999 GSA report, about 26,000 federal employees work at home or at off-site offices, such as suburban telecommuting centers. The Treasury, Defense, Health and Human Services, and Labor departments have the most telecommuters.

Joice says telecommuting has saved the government money by allowing agencies to consolidate office space.

"With sufficient utilization of telework, an agency could reconfigure its main worksite to take advantage of the fact that at least part of the time, there could be a significant amount of work space, vacated by teleworkers, that is not in use," Joice writes in the report.

For example, in 1996 the Education Department used telecommuting to reduce facility costs in field offices, enabling the agency to save 24 jobs that it otherwise would have lost.

"Beginning as early as 1990 and continuing throughout the evolution of federal telework, the program has enjoyed bipartisan political support from both the executive and legislative branches of government," said Joice.

Telecommuting pilot programs emerged during the late 1970s and early 1980s, including experiments at the National Institutes of Health and the Army. The first governmentwide telecommuting pilot was launched in 1989, and focused on work-at-home arrangements. By September 1990, three agencies-the Agriculture Department, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the Interior Department-had flexiplace programs in place.

GSA and the Transportation Department are currently working on reinvigorating the National Telecommuting Initiative (NTI), which was launched in 1996.

The report details the emergence of federal telecenters, satellite offices used by groups of employees. During the Northridge, Calif., earthquake in January 1994, GSA established three telecenters in the Los Angeles metropolitan area that helped federal workers avoid what had become a six-hour round-trip commute and spared agency customers an inconvenient trip into downtown Los Angeles.

Ten agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service and the Social Security Administration, participated in the effort. But according to Joice, by December 1994, only one telecenter was still in operation.

As of last year, the Washington metropolitan area had 16 telecenters, and legislation sponsored by Reps. Frank Wolf, R-Va., and Steny Hoyer, D-Md., required federal agencies to set aside an annual minimum of $50,000 for telecenter user fees.

Last year, Congress passed the National Telecommuting and Air Quality Act, H.R. 2556, a bill sponsored by Wolf that established pilot programs in five metropolitan areas providing financial incentives for businesses that let employees work from home on various days.

In July, a report issued by the PricewaterhouseCoopers Endowment for the Business of Government, said most federal managers are "totally disinterested" in the concept of flexiplace, despite interest from many of the employees they manage.

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