Agency officials say resistance to telework is dropping

Agency officials told lawmakers Thursday that managerial resistance to telecommuting is gradually diminishing.

Office of Personnel Management Director Kay Coles James and Stephen Perry, head of the General Services Administration, told members of the House Government Reform Committee that the telework goals laid out in a 2001 law backed by Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va. (P.L. 106-346) are not unrealistic, but will take longer to implement than the bill mandates.

The law required that 25 percent of eligible workers have the opportunity to telework by April 2001, 50 percent by April 2002, and 75 percent by April 2003.

"I do think we can get there," James said. "The only thing that's unrealistic is the timing." She cited the size of the federal workforce and necessity for cultural changes to be made within each agency as the primary reason for the relatively slow progress.

Perry acknowledged that agencies have not considered telework a priority. That's beginning to change as a result of GSA and OPM efforts, he said. Both Perry and James said that managerial resistance to telework, one of the most commonly cited roadblocks, is lessening.

OPM has a three-pronged strategy to promote telecommuting, agency officials said in a Wednesday press briefing.

First, the agency is focusing on telework as an emergency preparedness tool. Abby Block, OPM's deputy associate director for employee and family support policy, said that increasing the number of employees who telecommute at least part of the time will help in emergency situations.

"You can't get everybody on the bus," Block said. "You need a cadre of people who have gotten the kinks out and are just used to working in a nonoffice environment."

The second OPM focus is on allaying managers' concerns about supervising telecommuters. One of managers' main worries, Block said, is that if they give employees the option to work away from the office and it doesn't work well, they can't take the benefit away. To dispel this fear, OPM encourages managers to implement clear-cut agreements for trial periods that free both the manager and employee from obligation to continue the arrangement after the trial ends.

Finally, OPM is moving away from treating telework as an independent topic for training purposes to integrating it in courses on management, emergency preparedness and other subjects.

While Block, James and Perry all said that telework is picking up speed, agencies are not going fast enough for some legislators.

At Thursday's hearing, committee chairman Tom Davis, R-Va. stated his support for a provision in the Commerce-Justice-State appropriations bill that would withhold $5 million from those agencies if they did not prove that eligible employees were given the opportunity to telecommute.

"I am prepared to … work to implement similar language that would apply to all federal agencies," Davis said. "Let the message be clear: We are serious and ready to help OPM and GSA hold agencies' feet to the fire."

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