GSA chief calls Telework Week a 'roaring success'

General Services Administration chief Martha Johnson spent Telework Week shuffling between her agency’s locations. General Services Administration chief Martha Johnson spent Telework Week shuffling between her agency’s locations. Caitlin Fairchild/Govexec.com

General Services Administration chief Martha Johnson spent Telework Week shuffling between her agency’s locations using mobile communications devices to gauge results and lessons learned.

“It’s been a roaring success,” with more than half of GSA’s 12,800 employees participating in the five-day event that ended Friday, Johnson said.

The 6,500 GSA employees who pledged to telework at least one day of the week was up from 3,200 last year. “We’ve taken it up a notch,” she said, and GSA is on its way to its goal of being the government’s model agency for embracing 21st century workplace flexibilities.

In an interview with Government Executive at GSA’s headquarters in Northwest Washington, which is bustling with renovations, Johnson said the chief lesson gleaned from the week’s experiment was “the need to be really organized -- as in having all your cords for today’s souped-up computers.”

Equally important is conference call etiquette and meeting protocol, she noted. “People must learn to speak up and announce who’s on the call,” Johnson said. “A leader can scream and shout to control things, but if individuals don’t follow the process,” the team effort can break down.

But overall, technology is helping instill a new “culture of whole-team work,” she said, as when teleworking colleagues check in with one another in the morning. “The problem-solving becomes more intentional, which makes the teams more effective.”

GSA leaders feel fortunate to plan what they see as the future of the federal workplace around the first-ever renovation of the 1917 building -- a $162 million effort funded with Recovery Act dollars.

Originally the home of the Interior Department, the ornate structure lined with old window-unit air conditioners, is being reconfigured as open office space that saves rent money by “reducing the employee footprint.” Much of that is accomplished through widespread teleworking that frees up space to be shared by floating employees who reserve rooms and desks using digital keypads attached to the glass walls.

When GSA vacated the F Street building for temporary quarters on First Street in Northeast Washington, there were 2,600 employees seated in a traditional architecture that included a long and mostly empty central hallway in each of three wings. Only 50 percent to 60 percent of the space was being used, Johnson said.

The new configuration will accommodate some 4,500 workers, many of whom will be on the road meeting with agency “customers,” but who will report in intermittently. They will use laptops, mobile VOIP phones and headsets at shared desks.

The building -- its ceiling vents and piping still bare -- is the site of a pilot program in shared space and teleworking involving several dozen employees in the agency’s Public Buildings Service.

The nonhierarchical open space contains pods of comfortable modern furniture, whiteboards, TVs and projectors, lockers, file cabinets, copiers, private rooms for personal calls, a kitchen, several glass-enclosed conference rooms and a “quiet room” where cellphone use is banned. A balcony with tables, chairs and Wi-Fi overlooks the city monuments.

The spaces include a shared bulletin board decorated with cartoons, and employees can still display personal mementos and store them in their lockers. “We’re not making people sit in tiny office space in dense mode,” Johnson said. “It’s a different mode.”

The agency’s “pivotal” transition to the Google cloud last year has opened up new opportunities for online collaboration in writing documents and strategic planning. Johnson noted that she and her chief human resources officer wrote the agency’s performance evaluation system for senior executives by sharing computer files remotely using color-coding word processing and chat programs.

GSA’s teleworking rate is among the highest in government, topped only by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, whose divisions have long embraced a more traditional telecommuting via phones and home computers, Johnson said. But she was pleased to report that during this year’s Telework Week, GSA had participants from across the country -- including nearly 100 percent of the Boston regional office. In Chicago, the staff treated the project as if it were a “continuity of operations” maneuver following a tornado or an earthquake.

Though telework has long been touted as a way to ease traffic, promote employee health and satisfaction and save energy, GSA focuses on its value for maintaining productivity during “weather hiccups,” as Johnson called them, such as the snowstorms and power outages that have hit the nation’s capital in recent years.

The past week’s “practices” showed many employees took to incorporating technology in their shared work, according to Johnson. GSA’s help desk reported high participation but no extra glitches.

Johnson got hooked on telecommuting as an executive with CSC Corp., a Falls Church, Va.-based technology firm. Its increasingly global markets required her to communicate from her home in Annapolis, Md., with headquarters and with customers in far-flung time zones.

She acknowledges that such private sector industries as Silicon Valley have pioneered the practical techniques of remote, mobile work favored by young people, but noted the government is “making a pretty good business case” for telework, with GSA as the “test case to go first.”

The 2010 legislation boosting telework has made policies more flexible, and mobile work achieves more productivity, Johnson said. President Obama’s 2011 executive order requiring greater agency efficiency also “positions us nicely,” she said, because improved use of space reduces costs. The agency hopes to save $28 million this year on operating and leasing expenses by consolidating more employees in the headquarters, “God willing and the creek don’t rise,” she added.

Though the order directs agencies to reduce purchases of duplicative personal technology, GSA continues to supply its staff with laptops and mobile phones, citing the need to control work-related software applications and avoid mingling them with personal ones.

“Because the budget is tight,” Johnson said, “we have to make big decisions on resources by searching much deeper and becoming more efficient in the way we work.”

GSA leaders are well aware of some managers’ mistrust of telework, as well as the image among some in the general public of lazy federal workers biding their time.

“Attendance should not be confused with productivity,” Johnson said. “The stereotype of a lazy, gum-chewing federal worker is damaging, and isn’t true or fair.”

The team members require productivity of everyone, even if their work isn’t readily visible, according to Johnson. “All employees need to be engaged and supported with technology,” she said. “We make sure they’re doing high-value work and make sure they’re focused.”

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