Editor's note: This is the first of four perspectives on telework in the federal government that will appear in the Sept. 1 issue of Government Executive Magazine.
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.
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.