Winter storm in Washington highlights telework

A massive winter storm bearing down on the Washington area and the release of President Obama's fiscal 2011 budget recommendation this week have drawn attention to the administration's efforts to increase telework in federal agencies.

"This severe weather forecast presents a key opportunity for agencies to test their telework plans in the context of emergency preparedness," Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry wrote to the government's chief human capital officers in a Feb. 4 memo encouraging them to allow agency employees with existing telework agreements to work remotely on Friday.

The metropolitan region's second major snowstorm of the season -- which could dump more than a foot of snow -- is scheduled to begin in late morning or early afternoon on Friday.

As of Thursday afternoon, the federal government in Washington was operating under an unscheduled leave policy. Employees who are unable to make it into the office on Friday can take leave, but they must inform their supervisors that they plan to do so. Emergency employees are expected to report to work.

The number of employees who telework could increase under Berry's leadership. Among the strategic goals for OPM included in Obama's budget proposal is boosting the number of federal employees who telework by 50 percent in 2011. In 2009, according to budget documents, 102,900 federal employees teleworked.

Early on, Berry adopted many of the provisions included in House and Senate legislation intended to advance federal telework. He created a council to determine best practices, and asked agencies to designate telework coordinators.

OPM is also in the process of designing a pilot program to help measure its impact on productivity and employee satisfaction and to determine models for telework and other alternate work schedule programs for agencies governmentwide. The pilot will include 500 employees both in Washington and outside the Beltway, and will last six months.

Steve O'Keefe, executive director of the Telework Exchange, a research and consulting organization, said agencies such as the Patent and Trademark Office that have been aggressive about promoting telework, often have clear productivity measurements, including how many applications employees process when working from home or an agency facility. Such metrics might not apply at other agencies.

"The $64,000 question is productivity," O'Keefe said. "How is the government measuring productivity for people who work in the office? It's not just a matter of how can we get productivity for people when they telework."

O'Keefe said serious weather events or concerns over infectious disease such as swine flu can be useful examples of the benefits of telework when it comes to the government's continuity of operations plans. But he emphasized that agencies still need to ensure they have the appropriate technology in place and that managers are prepared to deal with teleworkers well in advance of any emergency.

"I think the point here is that telework is not an 'in case of emergency, break glass' solution," O'Keefe said.

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