Telework Hang-Ups

Despite the benefits of working at home or at a telecenter, most agencies still aren't on board.

Easing traffic congestion, saving on rent, ensuring continuity of operations, helping the environment, allowing employees to spend more time with families, encouraging recruitment and retention-these are often-cited benefits of telework. Despite the lengthy list, most agencies have been slow to catch on.

Telework has been a buzzword since Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., pushed the 2001 Federal Telework Mandate through Congress. He has estimated that as many as 75 percent of federal employees may be eligible. The Office of Personnel Management, charged with ensuring that the goals laid out by the law are met, has been using training to overcome manager resistance.

The law requires federal agencies to give all eligible employees the option of working from home or from satellite offices. But many managers fear productivity would decline if more employees worked from home, where they can't be monitored.

OPM officials say the program is picking up steam and resistance is waning. "It is becoming clearer to agencies there is, in fact, a business case for telework," says Director Kay Coles James. "I think this message is being heard."

But the numbers and accounts from federal employees tell a different story. OPM's 2003 Telework Report shows the percentage of employees deemed eligible to work off site-43 percent, or 751,844 people-is smaller than Wolf's estimate. The report also notes a huge disparity between the number of employees deemed eligible and the more than 102,000 who were teleworking in 2003.

Apparently, the definition of eligibility varies from agency to agency and often is not clearly laid out for employees. Only 46 percent of agencies have a policy for formally notifying employees that they are eligible, according to the OPM report. This lack of guidance allows managers to refuse employee requests to telework without sufficient cause, some observers say. "The way it is now, you can have a situation where an individual manager doesn't like telework, so he says people aren't eligible," says Chuck Wilsker, executive director of the Telework Coalition. "A general eligibility policy would eliminate that."

Given the lack of compliance, Wolf does not think Congress has any option other than to pass legislation to enforce the mandate. He included a provision in the fiscal 2005 Commerce, Justice, State Appropriations Bill, which passed the House in early July. It would withhold $5 million from the Commerce, Justice and State departments, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Small Business Administration for failing to give eligible employees the option to telework.

Wolf is baffled by agencies' unwillingness to adopt a beneficial program. "I am surprised," he says. "All the studies show it makes a lot of sense. It's good for the employee, good for the employer, good for the family, good for traffic."

Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., introduced a bill in July that would initiate a pilot program to test the federal government's ability to continue operations from remote locations during emergencies. In an effort to sell telework to managers, OPM has begun touting it as a crucial tool for ensuring continuity of government operations in case of disaster.

"The accountability is missing now in the whole thing," says a Transportation Security Administration employee who requested anonymity. "The regulation can be out there, but if managers are not sitting down with employees putting together a plan that will permit them to telework . . . then it's all for naught, regardless of how many edicts Congress or OPM puts out."

To promote telework, the General Services Administration, OPM's telework partner, has focused on technology and facility issues. At the July hearing, GSA Administrator Stephen Perry said telework could allow agencies to significantly reduce their rent. The Patent and Trade Office was cited as one success. Through a large-scale telework program, the agency managed to eliminate the need to rent several floors of office space.

Situational teleworking, based on circumstances such as illness, temporary disability or a special project, would not likely reduce rents, but telecenters might. If enough core employees regularly worked in a remote location, then agencies might need less space in the central office because workers could share desks, Perry said.

The eventual savings from telework could far outweigh the expense of equipping employees' homes, says Stan Kaczmarczyk, GSA's deputy associate administrator for real property. GSA has developed a cost-per-person model that has been distributed to more than 220 agencies.

Wilsker says private sector data shows that teleworkers miss fewer days of work, and this alone can offset expenses. "They can equip a teleworker with the necessary computer, printer and broadband, and can make it up [by avoiding] 3.5 days of unexcused absenteeism," he says.

For employees who telework once a week or less, some agencies prefer to use centers in which equipment already is available. Telecenters provide resources that even well-funded teleworkers might not have at home, such as conference rooms and copy machines. "The economy of scale is important," James says. She also notes that managers can visit centers, which can reassure them about the process. "Show and tell is still one of the best ways to alleviate telework manager concerns," she says.

Agency culture and managers' attitudes might be shifting in favor of telework, but the change is too slow, in Davis' opinion. "It's clear that left to its own devices, it's going to take years," he said. "And I don't think we have years."

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