GSA inaugurates updated telework policy

This story has been updated.

The General Services Administration on Monday put into effect what is viewed as a model for governmentwide telework policy, updating guidance for managers from one that presumed employees cannot telecommute to one that presumes they can.

At a signing ceremony on the 12th floor of GSA's temporary headquarters on First Street N.E. in Washington, Administrator Martha Johnson said, "This is a great day," as she congratulated the project management team that devoted three years to the Updated Mobile and Telework Policy.

The document signed by GSA Chief People Officer Anthony Costa begins with these goals: "Make every GSA employee, with few exceptions, eligible for telework; explicitly define some of the ways in which we work, such as hot desking, the workspace sharing arrangements known as hoteling and desk sharing; and most important, empower our entire workforce to be mobile for the 21st century."

Saying GSA was going first in showing its support for telework efforts by the Office of Personnel Management, Johnson stressed that successful telework "is a team sport. It's all about culture and trust, not a bunch of rules." She said the government is evolving to become "more collaborative and team-based as we're no longer sitting by ourselves in the office and no longer sitting by ourselves at home." She added that the future of the federal workforce will depend on "evolving our behaviors and compacts."

She expects the policy to be fine-tuned in the next two years as the government focuses on "leaning forward" to adapt to the world of mobile work. The few employees who will not be allowed to telework will be determined through managers using common sense, she added, giving the example of an employee who runs a child care center.

OPM Director John Berry congratulated the gathered GSA employees for "leading the way" on boosting telework, saying the "10 second commute from the bedroom or kitchen" helps retain better workers and takes pressure off an overburdened transportation system. "Presentism -- or sitting at desk but not producing -- is as problematic as absenteeism," Berry said. "Managers have to trust, but hold employees accountable. Nonperformers can no longer hide behind their desks, and workers can only be judged by results." Teleworking is the key to the success that will lead to "better services for taxpayers and a stronger government for the country," he added.

Berry noted that GSA has the highest percentage of telecommuters of all federal agencies and that data from the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey show that the teleworkers score well on engagement and job satisfaction. Recalling the August earthquake on the East Coast, he said, "Whether it's shaky ground or falling ice, telework allows us to continue to operate the government."

The new policy builds off of the 2010 Telework Enhancement Act, which requires agencies to "increase the use of flexible work arrangements to improve management effectiveness and create efficiencies, improve agency continuity of operations, and enhance work-life balance," GSA said in a statement.

The text includes a commitment to negotiating the implementation with unions, but does not include specific sanctions for managers who fail to execute it. Johnson told reporters she plans to make actualizing telework part of a larger review of managers' performance on the "environmental footprint," which would also include curbing use of office printers and reducing employee travel.

Less enthusiastic about the policy was Jack Hanley, GSA General Council president at the National Federation of Federal Employees, which represents 4,000 GSA workers. "We feel strongly that telework will be a great tool for improving agency efficiency and worker morale so long as it is administered fairly and transparently," he said in an email to Government Executive. "Unfortunately, the agency has been less than cooperative in working with employee representatives on key work-life issues that stem from this rapid transition to a remote workforce."

Hanley said GSA has refused NFFE's requests to bargain over changes in telework policy, citing concerns about the cost burden on employees for related expenses such as utilities and equipment. "The federal service labor management relations statute requires that GSA must negotiate all changes in workplace conditions before implementation," he said, "and they haven't done that."

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