By Elizabeth Newell Jochum
May 21, 2004Federal agencies have made improvements in implementing telecommuting plans, but are far below the goals laid out four years ago by Congress, according to the Office of Personnel Management.
While the number of telecommuting employees grew from 90,010 in 2002 to 102,921 in 2003, that number is less than 4 percent of the federal workforce, according to OPM's 2003 Telework Report. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., who pushed the telework legislation through Congress, had pushed for 75 percent of the federal workforce to be telecommuting at least part of the time by 2003.
"There's still a hesitancy in managers to accept it," said Dan Scandling, spokesman for Wolf, in an interview with Government Executive. "Change is difficult to accept sometimes," he continued. "[Wolf] will be very disappointed that the numbers aren't where they should be."
While OPM and the General Services Administration have looked to increase participation rates through manager and employee education, promotional brochures, newsletter articles, and training and consultation for interested managers, annual progress continues to crawl.
Under the 2001 Federal Telework Mandate (P.L. 106-346), managers must allow eligible employees to participate to the maximum extent possible without diminishing employee performance. The requirements were to be extended to 25 percent of the workforce by April 2001, increasing by 25 percent each year.
Several continuing obstacles have been laid out by OPM, including the nature of agency work, data security and information technology funding concerns, and management resistance. This resistance stems from worries over the accountability and productivity of teleworkers, the report said, but Scandling believes these concerns to be unfounded.
"Teleworkers are much more productive," Scandling said. "They have better attitudes, get more done and get to spend more time with their families because they don't have to spend an hour and a half driving to work every day."
In addition to being a convenience to employees, teleworking also allows agencies to function through occurrences that can disrupt business as usual, such as weather, traffic jams due to large public events, or evacuation of buildings for extended periods of time, such as with the Pentagon after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, or the Senate and its staff during the anthrax and ricin incidents.
Widespread use of telecommuting would also make the government a better work environment for people with disabilities, proponents argue. For the second year in a row, health-related teleworking was the only area of the initiative that showed significant improvement. From 2002 to 2003, there was a more than 120 percent increase in the number of employees telecommuting for health-related reasons. The OPM report expressed the benefit as a reasonable accommodation for people with permanent disabilities or temporary health problems.
One major problem is the lack of communication between managers and employees regarding eligibility to telecommute. The OPM report stated that only 46 percent of agencies have a policy for formally notifying employees of their eligibility. This accounts partially for the disparity between those eligible, 751,844, and actual teleworkers, 102,921.
IT issues also plague the implementation. Managers are often reluctant to spend money on equipment or IT support that would not otherwise be necessary. Teleworking requires a significant budget boost to pay for centers or equipment for employees' homes. In some agencies, there also is concern about the security of transmitting information from telework locations back to the agency.
In order to address the lagging progress, the House Government Reform Committee will hold a hearing, tentatively scheduled for July 8, at Wolf's request. According to Scandling, the hearing will address the issues in the report and the fact that the numbers "aren't where they should be."
By Elizabeth Newell Jochum
May 21, 2004