OPM announces new governmentwide telework policy

Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry on Wednesday announced a broad new telework plan for employees, in part to deal with growing concern over the spread of swine flu in the United States.

Berry, who said President Obama and the Cabinet are committed to expanding telework, met with department secretaries this week to discuss the importance of the practice as a continuity of operations measure in the face of the global disease.

"It's going to get attention for that very reason," Berry said. "It's an opportunity to get ourselves ready. If it's not this, it'll be something else….This [telework] 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."

OPM's plan includes components of two major telework bills introduced this year -- the Telework Improvements Act (H.R. 1722), introduced by Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., and the Telework Enhancement Act (S. 707), introduced by Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii.

It calls for a council of program managers to develop standards for telework, and requires agencies to submit telework policies to that council for review. It also asks agencies to designate a telework managing officer and create an appeals process for employees who are denied permission to use the work arrangement. Additionally, it would establish training programs to prepare employees to telework and curb managerial opposition. OPM would be in charge of providing technical assistance.

Sarbanes said he would push for passage of his bill to make sure the policy changes would be codified in law. He praised Berry's move as a step toward making the federal government a more competitive employer.

"There are so many talented people out there who are looking for the flexibility telework can offer, and we're now going to be able to compete for these people," Sarbanes said.

Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., a co-sponsor of the House bill, said he had seen the impact of telework during his tenure as chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors in Virginia. He said that by getting 20 percent of Fairfax public employees to use the alternative work arrangement by 2005, the board decreased traffic in the county as much as 6 percent, reducing pollution and congestion. But he said the benefits of telework extended beyond quality of life issues.

"There is no way you can have a viable continuity of operations program without a vigorous telework program in place," Connolly said.

Implementation of Berry's telework policy could begin quickly. The new OPM chief said his goal was to release guidance establishing the advisory council by Friday, noting that "President Obama doesn't sit still for long."

Nancy Kichak, associate director for OPM's Human Resources Policy Division, will oversee implementation of the new plan. She said she hopes to work with the Chief Human Capital Officers Council and telework coordinators to develop strategies quickly. And she said she will demand accountability from agencies.

"We're going to ask to see the plans, we're going to ask to know who the telework managing officer is," she said. "We're not just going to issue guidance."

Berry signaled that the new policy is just a first step toward broader action on work-life balance issues. The OPM director brought in some new staffers to work on quality of life programs, Kichak noted.

"This is one softball we can take care of early," Berry said. "But there's going to be more."

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