Homing In on Telework

Working from home has not only gained acceptance, it's becoming a management priority. But structuring a governmentwide policy won't be easy.

Last winter, as snowstorms paralyzed the Washington region, shutting down federal agencies for four days and costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars in lost productivity, telework went from an office perk to a national necessity. Back-to-back storms, now referred to as Snowmaggedon, created drifts of up to 4 feet in some areas, making it impossible for thousands of feds to get to their offices. According to the Office of Personnel Management, the cost of the storm was mitigated somewhat by employees who teleworked while stuck at home and by workers outside the national capital region who were able to up the slack from snowed-in Washington workers.

OPM is working to launch a governmentwide telework program aimed at increasing the number of employees who telework by 50 percent in the next few years. In addition, the House and Senate have passed bills to push agencies to establish formal telework programs and provide employees with the technical and managerial support to work remotely. Capitol Hill staffers expect those two bills to be reconciled soon and moved forward to President Obama's desk.

These efforts address a key challenge for federal telework-the lack of a formal governmentwide program. Thus far, agencies have been on their own to establish telework programs, and employees with a desire to work remotely have been at the mercy of their supervisors' perceptions of telework. Many agencies lack the training, support and resources necessary to promote telecommuting.

With progress on all fronts, Government Executive asked experts and stakeholders to weigh in on why telework is so important and what stands in its way. Here's what they had to say.

A WIN-WIN

Gerald E. Connolly
U.S. Representative, D-Va.

Now that the House and Senate have passed legislation advocating increased telework by federal employees, hopefully we can soon iron out the minor differences, get the bill to the president, and start implementing telework on a broader scale across the federal government.

The benefits of telework have been proved in the private and public sectors, with many success stories emanating from corporations and local governments, including Fairfax County, Va., where we implemented a robust program. I am confident that we can see similar success stories from the federal sector, where the regular telework participation rate currently is a meager 6 percent to 10 percent.

The benefits are many for the federal government, the taxpayers and all who live in the National Capital Region and other areas of the country with high concentrations of federal employees.

It can reduce traffic congestion and air pollution and improve quality of life by taking cars off already clogged roadways. The Washington area is the third most congested region of the country. Particularly during the summer, the National Capital Region suffers from unhealthy air pollution levels, virtually all of it attributable to automobile emissions.

In the event of a weather- or nature-related emergency or a terrorist incident that has the potential to shut down Washington and hinder the federal government's ability to function, telework can keep the government up and running. We learned that during this past winter's back-to-back snowstorms that forced the shutdown of the government in Washington for four-and-a-half days. Thanks to the 30 percent of federal employees who were able to telework, many of them voluntarily, the federal government saved $30 million a day in what would otherwise have been lost productivity. That amounted to $135 million in savings in one week.

The legislation we passed mandates that all federal agencies must incorporate telework into their continuity of operations plans and put managers in place to monitor and boost the use of telework.

Recruitment and retention of a quality federal workforce is another important reason to increase telework. With 48 percent of the federal workforce eligible to retire within the next five to 10 years, we need to make sure that telework is part of our benefits package. Telework is an expectation among the next generation of workers, and we need to offer the opportunity in order to recruit the best in Washington's highly competitive labor market.

No matter how you look at it, telework is a win-win situation for the federal government and our nation, whether one looks at it in terms of productivity, cost savings, workforce recruitment and retention, reduced pollution and traffic congestion, or quality of life.

As we move forward to expand telework in the federal government, we must institute metrics to measure its success and effectiveness. As we begin to see positive results, I am hopeful that we can set specific goals for participation, as we did for the Fairfax County government, that will provide increased and enhanced benefits far into the future.

Now, if we could get 20 percent of all Americans to telework one day a week, we could reduce our dependence on Persian Gulf oil imports by up to 48 percent. But we have to move one step at a time.

GETTING BOSSES ON BOARD

Bill Bransford
General Counsel
Senior Executives Association

With the passage of legislation in both the House and Senate, telework is quickly moving from concept to reality in the federal government. The challenge now becomes implementing telework policies while ensuring that agency operations and performance remain high and providing clear guidance and expectations. Federal managers and executives will be on the front lines of getting this done effectively.

Managers and executives are often cited as a barrier to telework. It is not a dislike of the program that causes supervisors to be skeptical, but rather the difficulties in ensuring that employees follow their telework policies correctly and in assessing productivity when an employee works from home. Supervisors also have encountered employees who are inaccessible by phone to customers while working at home, and some who have resisted coming in for a necessary meeting because it was called on their scheduled telework day. It is these experiences and the sense of entitlement that seems to occur among some employees who telework that have led to supervisors' resistance to putting a telework program in place.

While the legislation moving through Congress generally addresses these challenges, the devil is in the details. The regulations to implement a governmentwide telework policy will have to ensure that programs are structured to give managers and executives the tools they need to effectively oversee employees who work remotely.

Among this guidance, OPM should ensure clear and measurable criteria on how to develop performance metrics for telework and communicate them to both supervisors and employees. Agencies should provide training on telework programs to everyone involved in such arrangements. Training for supervisors should include communicating performance expectations to employees and implementing flexible work arrangements through collective bargaining agreements. Agencies should outline clear expectations for teleworking employees, such as the need to be available by phone and e-mail during work hours, make occasional unexpected trips to the office to attend meetings, work on a task force if required, or be present at a specific location if it's essential to the agency's mission.

Agencies should make appropriate equipment, including computers, printers and BlackBerrys, available to employees working remotely and make sure they know how to use and service those tools from a remote location.

Managers and executives must be prepared not only to implement these new policies, but also to build in mechanisms that will allow telework programs to succeed. This takes work. OPM and Congress must provide supervisors with the tools and flexibilities to manage their workforce. And supervisors will have to use the best leadership and oversight skills to accurately assess productivity and prevent telework from becoming an intractable and inefficient employee entitlement that actually reduces government effectiveness.

OFF-ROAD RULES

Danette Campbell
Senior Adviser for Telework
U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

The Patent and Trademark Office started its telework programs more than 13 years ago with 18 trademark examining attorneys. Today, more than 5,600 employees agencywide work from home at least one day per week. Creating a workforce that can work seamlessly from remote locations, all business units now participate in the telework initiative.

The program is based on a business strategy that supports the agency's mission and goals, with key features that focus on:

  • Space and related cost savings, including avoidance of an $11 million expenditure on additional offices
  • Comprehensive training programs
  • Continuity of operations planning
  • Hoteling programs that allow employees to relinquish their office space and work from home four to five days per week
  • Reduction of traffic congestion in the Washington region
  • Employee work-life balance
  • Better employee productivity, satisfaction and retention

PTO has demonstrated telework is successful with the appropriate eligibility criteria, pilot programs, collaboration tools, IT and non-IT training, an enterprisewide policy and business unit guidelines, clear performance measures, and labor-management partnerships.

The agency's telework coordinators working group, which includes representatives from each business unit, meets quarterly. Members gather and report quarterly telework data, including how many positions are eligible for the program, how many employees participate, their grade levels and the number of days per week they telework.

Communication is easier when everyone is in the same location and positioned to take advantage of impromptu meetings, hallway conversations and office debriefs. There can be communication challenges when working and managing in a virtual environment, where there is no hallway, no cafeteria and no central meeting place to have conversations. To improve communication, managers should:

  • Host virtual meetings
  • Require project updates
  • Set up teleconferences and videoconferences
  • Use voicemail and e-mail effectively
  • Establish a team communication plan
  • Build employees' communication skills

PTO designed an intranet to provide telework resources to employees and communicate policies, business unit guidelines and updates on quarterly coordinators' meetings and statistics. The site also includes training materials, ergonomic tips for the home office and answers to frequently asked questions.

To fully reap the benefits of telework, agencies must secure connections between remote workers and offices. Data should be encrypted and stored on an agency server instead of a laptop hard drive. Teleworkers and managers should be well-versed in their agency's information technology and security policies to ensure their work is safe, secure and seamless.

MOBILE WORKDAYS

John Berry
Director
Office of Personnel Management

Since being confirmed as director of OPM in April 2009, John Berry has spoken extensively about the need for telework. Here are some highlights:

  • Telework capabilities are a key aspect in ensuring viable continuity of operations programs, as well as the continuance in an uninterrupted fashion of important government services and functions. OPM has set a strategic goal to increase the number of eligible federal employees who telework by 50 percent from fiscal 2009 to fiscal 2011.
  • We know telework is valuable for the recruitment and retention of employees. We are aware that it mitigates environmental damage from commuter traffic and, lastly, we understand it can help employees balance work and other life responsibilities. However, unless we look at telework as a good business decision, incorporating it as an integral part of doing business in the federal government, we will continue to ignore the one effective and important tool that could make the difference between shutting down federal government services and continuing to operate with minimal interruption in emergency situations. Telework enables business to continue services and operations without jeopardizing the safety of its employees. This is something the president cares about. The response [from the Cabinet secretaries] was, "This makes perfect sense, and we're going to get to work on it." People get it.
  • Strong, consistent [telework] policies are critical to program success. Of course, we are particularly interested in agency expectations with regard to telework during emergency closures. Most policies require teleworkers to fulfill their duties during closures, but also allow for consideration and latitude with regard to child or elder care issues or other personal responsibilities that may occur due to specific circumstances of the closure. We plan to give individual feedback to agencies . . . and will provide guidance on how to better incorporate telework as part of their emergency planning.
  • We are aware that we have many obstacles to overcome in achieving this goal. The results from the 2008 governmentwide annual call for telework data showed that 49 percent of agencies reported that management resistance remains a major barrier to telework. In addition, 32 percent reported that information technology security and IT funding are each significant barriers to the use of telework.
  • I believe we can move telework forward to the point where we never again need to close the federal government for snow emergencies. By creating a mobile workforce, employees will always be able to work regardless of their location. With proper equipment and appropriate emergency planning, we need only to declare a "mobile workday," and the federal government can seamlessly conduct business as usual.
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