Agencies Aren't Sure How Much They Are Saving By Letting Employees Telework

Federal agencies cannot assess the value of allowing employees to telework, according to a new report, as they do not collect data on all the benefits or costs involved in letting staff work remotely.

The Office of Personnel Management should issue guidance informing agencies how to identify the net savings from telework policy, the Government Accountability Office found, and collect more data that demonstrate they are cutting costs. Nearly half of the federal workforce is eligible to work from home, GAO said, but agencies and Congress are incapable of making informed decisions on telework without more analysis of its cost and benefits.

Since the passage of the 2010 Telework Enhancement Act, agencies have tracked the usage of telework and, to varying degrees, its benefits. Agencies have been increasingly avoiding reporting their goals for remote work policies since the law’s enactment, however. OPM attributed the fewer spelled out goals to the maturation of the program.

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While the law requires annual data collection on telework, OPM has never asked agencies to report specifically on the costs of implementing telework. Individual agencies GAO reviewed for its analysis said costs included salaries for telework coordinators, training for both teleworkers and mangers who supervise them and remote access software. OPM has not issued any guidance directing agencies how to calculate the costs or savings that result from telework. 

“As a result,” GAO said, “Congress does not have the information it needs to assess the true value of telework, which could impact its ability to provide oversight of telework across the federal government.”

Initially, lawmakers said the increased used of telework would create positive effects on “energy consumption, job creation and availability, urban transportation patterns, and the ability to anticipate the dispersal of work during periods of emergency.” GAO’s audit also found specific benefits in work-life balance, recruitment, retention, reduced transit subsidies, increased productivity, and cutting real estate and utility costs.

Agencies included in GAO’s audit reported employees staying on after moving instead of retiring because they could telework and cutting the office space they lease. In the most recent data, however, just four agencies reported actual dollar figures from their telework savings. GAO suggested agencies measure the metric tons of carbon emissions not released by less travel, utility bill savings and cuts to transit benefit spending, as well as qualitative measurements such as survey results showing satisfaction with work-life balance, to more firmly track the benefits of telework policies.

“In the current fiscal climate,” GAO said, “cost savings is an important measure of the success of telework programs.”

GAO added OPM is missing opportunities to help agencies better identify those successes by not issuing new telework metrics guidance. OPM does make some resources available to agencies, such as webinars to help agencies collect telework data, issuing a report on telework best practices and offering a fee-for-service program that can survey employees or review an agency’s policy. The human resources agency said more specific guidance would be difficult, as telework policies vary from agency to agency and the data collection would require resources the agencies do not have.

Still, OPM agreed to issue guidance to help agencies collect data on costs and benefits of telework, and to start requiring agencies to report on net cost savings. 

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