Agencies lag at telework, but could H1N1 be the catalyst for change?

Federal agencies have been slow to ramp up telework programs that allow employees to work remotely, which could be a threat to operations if the H1N1 pandemic worsens. Telework offers agencies many advantages, including higher employee retention rates, less demand for office space and enhanced productivity when disaster strikes. But less than 8 percent of employees who are eligible to telework actually did so in 2007, according to the Office of Personnel Management.

Many agencies have cultures that discourage telework. Bosses worry that employees will slack off or put information security at risk if they work remotely. Employees fear they won't get promoted because they'll be out of sight and out of mind. "The government still has a lot of folks who don't get telework and don't want to get it," says Chuck Wilsker, president and chief executive officer of the Telework Coalition. "If, say, 10 percent of them are teleworking that means 90 percent are not."

Most pandemic plans are based on work-at-home scenarios. Research firm Gartner Inc., for example, says a pandemic could result in absenteeism rates as high as 40 percent for as long as three months.

Experts say organizations with the most telework experience will be in the best position to respond to H1N1 or any other pandemic. That's because they will have the notebook computers, collaborative applications and telecommunications networks in place to support a massive and sustained telework scenario.

"A telework program is like insurance," Wilsker says. "With a pandemic, you have to plan for the worst and hope for the best. Let's say it doesn't happen. The telework program will still come in handy if you have a flood or a bridge goes down or you have a pretty bad winter. Something else will happen . . . and you'll need it for business continuity."

One agency that says it's ready for a pandemic is the Defense Information Systems Agency, which is a leader in telework. Between 45 percent and 50 percent of its eligible employees telework, says Jack Penkoske, DISA's director of manpower, security and personnel. Overall, the agency has 6,700 military and civilian personnel in nine countries and 24 states.

"There's been a huge investment in training people in how do you work in a virtual environment and how do you measure productivity," Penkoske says.

DISA embraced telework four years ago, setting up a team of senior executives from human resources, information technology and operations to promote the practice. Since then, the agency has been using its technology refresh dollars to replace aging PCs with laptops, docking stations, common access card readers and encryption software.

"Ninety percent of our folks who get computers get laptops so they can use them at work or they can use them at home," says John Garing, DISA's director of strategic planning and information. Telework "is built into our culture." Employees are allowed to telework up to three days a week with a supervisor's approval.

DISA reimburses employees for half the initial subscription cost and monthly fees for their Internet broadband access at home. The agency also provides a full suite of collaborative software such as Web conferencing to support remote workers. Officials say telework is a key component of DISA's planning for H1N1. "[We will be] maximizing telework, and we're in the process of practicing the teleworking procedures to make sure we can optimize that feature," says Larry Huffman, DISA's director of operations.

The agency says it's ready for the H1N1 pandemic because it has an extensive continuity of operations plan that it regularly tests and updates. Distributed network operations and data centers allow DISA to duplicate applications and data and to migrate workloads on a moment's notice.

"We're better off than a lot of organizations," Penkoske says. "We're in a mid-mature level as far as our teleworking, and I think that will help us as we go through this pandemic planning process."

DISA has prioritized its workload. "We have a very good handle in the agency of what our critical core competencies are," Huffman says. "We know those things that can't fail, and we know the things that can take risk for a matter of days or weeks. We know exactly where to apply precious resources in times of crisis."

DISA tested its telework plan in January during Obama's inauguration by having employees in the Washington area work from home. The agency's telework program also came in handy when a flood rendered one of its buildings unusable for six weeks. "If it's 12 or 13 weeks, none of us has experienced something that long," Garing says. "If it's a matter of a couple weeks, I wouldn't bat an eye."

The General Services Administration centers its pandemic strategy-and its overall continuity of operations planning-around telework. "It is really a great tool for continuity, especially in a pandemic situation because it allows you the ability to engage in some of the tools to fight a pandemic such as social distancing," says Josh Sawislak, senior adviser to GSA's administrator and acting chief emergency response and recovery officer. "When you're trying to keep people away from each other to limit the spread of infection, you can have them work at home and continue to do the job."

Sawislak says the best way to make sure employees are trained and equipped to telework is to have them work from home occasionally. "We try to get all of our folks whose job allows them to [telework] to at least try it and make sure they know how to do it in case they have to work from home or somewhere else," he says. The agency wants to make sure "they have the training, tools and permissions."

GSA says 46 percent of its workers who are eligible are participating in the telework program. And the agency deems everyone eligible unless a supervisor says otherwise. "Our management strategy is opt-out," Sawislak says. "We've said everybody is eligible to telework, and now tell us who is not." Exceptions would be receptionists, security guards or employees who handle classified information, he notes.

Like DISA, the General Services Administration has been transitioning its workforce from desktop to laptop computers. But the agency doesn't reimburse employees for their broadband access from home. GSA ran a test of its telework systems in August when the Commonwealth of Virginia held Telework Day, which attracted more than 2,200 federal and private sector participants. "We knew we were going to have a heavy load that day, so we did a lot of analysis of the systems and real-time monitoring," Sawislak says, adding that GSA learned a lot from Virginia's Telework Day. "Our CIO office is really focused on the infrastructure and the capacity you need to really surge it up."

GSA finds that the biggest roadblock for telework is cultural, particularly among mid-level managers. "For those folks whose management theory and management training centers around 'I have to see the person sitting in the chair,' we're trying to get people to think about getting work done and meeting performance objectives," Sawislak says.

Carolyn Duffy Marsan is a high-tech business reporter based in Indianapolis who has covered the federal IT market since 1987.

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