Teleworkforce

Bet on a continued shift to flexible work arrangements, whether managers like it or not.

In recent months, the conventional wisdom about the prospects for increasing the number of federal employees who telecommute has lurched from the positive to the negative-and back again. But the long-term trend looks fairly clear: Whether or not agencies or managers like it, the size of the federal teleworkforce is likely to increase.

Earlier this year, as gas prices climbed above $3 per gallon in many areas of the country, telework advocates began touting the cost-saving benefits of flexible work arrangements. The Alexandria, Va.-based Telework Exchange cranked out some numbers: The average federal employee, it reported, was spending $138 a month in gasoline, up $46 from 2005. The typical worker could save an average of $56 a month by teleworking two days a week, the group reported.

But then, just as employees started breaking out their calculators to assess the financial benefits of saying goodbye to the office, the tide turned. Reports that data on millions of veterans and service members was stolen from the home of a Veterans Affairs Department employee filled headlines for weeks. VA quickly moved to restrict employees' access to its network from home and limit telework at one of its divisions.

As reports of data thefts at other agencies multiplied, it seemed that telework had been dealt a severe blow. But just as quickly, the pendulum headed back in the other direction. As heavy rains pounded the Washington area in June, the Internal Revenue Service was forced to close its headquarters building. Thousands of employees had to be relocated to other facilities in the region, and others were allowed to telecommute. Suddenly, everybody remembered what they'd learned after Hurricane Katrina: Every agency needs a continuity of operations plan, and it only makes sense that those plans include telecommuting.

The lesson here is that following the progress of telework in the federal sector is like watching the stock market-the short-term blips don't tell you much. But over the long haul, the trend goes in one direction: up.

As Daniel Pulliam has reported on GovExec.com for several months, for every setback to telework, there are many examples of agencies working behind the scenes to boost the number of employees who don't come into the office. The Patent and Trademark Office already has more than 225 senior examiners working from home under a program launched earlier this year, and expects to more than double that number by the end of the year. The main impetus for the program was the fact that the agency simply doesn't have enough space in its offices for all the examiners it needs to add in the coming years.

Officials at the Defense Information Systems Agency said in June that more than 1,400 of their 5,000 employees had been declared eligible to telework, up from 400 before new policies promoting out-of-office work were released late last year. The agency hopes expanding telework will help retain employees as the agency moves from Northern Virginia to a military base south of Baltimore.

For a long time, the assumption was that executives and managers were the biggest stumbling block. But with the development of online collaboration tools, managers will likely be among the next wave of telecommuters. "I think the real progress will come when you get managers out remotely," says William Mularie, chief executive officer of the federally sponsored Telework Consortium in Herndon, Va. "The idea of having managers at a [central] office and having workers distributed is probably the wrong model."

In fact, the biggest long-term impediment to telework may not be managers, but employees who have grown comfortable with tried-and-true methods of work. The loudest objections to PTO's program have come from the union representing examiners. Their concern is that employees who join the program have to give up their offices, with no guarantee they'll get them back if they choose to return to headquarters. But it's a good bet that once the examiners get a taste of life without having to face Washington's clogged transportation network every day, they won't want to turn back.

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