OPM focuses on emergency planning to push telework efforts

To promote more widespread use of teleworking, the Office of Personnel Management is emphasizing the importance of having a network of telecommuters in place in the event of an emergency.

Abby Block, OPM's deputy associate director for employee and family support policy, told Government Executive that emergency planning has become a key aspect of telework. She stressed that while some managers may be reluctant to allow employees to telecommute, the "emergency preparedness line of reasoning is one they understand and will move things along."

The 2003 Telework Report indicated that after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and weather disasters like Hurricane Isabel, agencies began to view telework as vital to the continuity of operations. It would allow employees to work from home or from satellite offices if agency offices were closed or unreachable.

David Marin, spokesman for Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., House Government Reform Committee chairman, agreed with OPM's emergency preparedness focus to telework. He recognized the widespread managerial resistance and said, "Hopefully, marrying telecommuting with continuity of operations planning can be a motivator to better implement telecommuting policies."

"We haven't been able to do it any other way," Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., said. "We can't jawbone our way into what managers regard as a supervision problem, a logistics problem and a time problem. I'm now working on an appropriations amendment that would allow some of this to occur."

Block said that OPM wants to expand the program beyond emergency situations. She said it was crucial to have employees who were used to telecommuting and managers who were used to dealing with them before a crisis occurred.

"You can't wake up the day of the crisis and say, 'Gee, it would really be nice if 500 people could work at home and continue our mission,'" Block said. "You have to have planned and have people that are already accustomed to doing this."

To educate managers, OPM is holding four forums to discuss emergency preparedness in the agencies and, Block said, teleworking would be a key component of the discussions. OPM also plans to address employee productivity and accountability--the two main reasons noted by the report for manager resistance. The agency is developing training methods that will assist managers in understanding "how to supervise a workforce that's not right in front of [them]," Block adds.

Marin said, "The key for OPM is to continue to hammer away at agencies that this is the direction we're heading in and that resistance is futile."

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