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Telework Rules

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Finding ways to allow employees to work outside the office is a hot trend in federal government. Whether it's to ensure that employees can perform their jobs during an emergency, foster a healthier balance between their personal and professional lives, or acknowledge the changing work styles as a result of technology, for the most part, agencies are embracing telework. But as some are learning, even programs designed to enhance workplace flexibility need rules to make them successful.

The Environmental Protection Agency learned this lesson when an employee called an anonymous hot line to complain that a colleague in the agency's National Enforcement Training Institute, part of the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, had been working from home in Ohio for nine years. While that might sound like the future of the decentralized, flexible workplace and show consideration for employees' complicated lives, this exception wasn't part of an organized EPA policy or program.

"EPA has no established or consistent policy, procedure, or criteria for granting full-time work-at-home privilege," wrote Wade Najjum, an assistant inspector general in the Office of Program Evaluation, in a report. "Full-time work-at-home opportunity appears to be preferentially available to only a few employees. Neither [the Office of Administration and Resources Management] nor [the National Enforcement Training Institute] has any written documentation showing the government interest in or appropriateness of making this arrangement, or that senior OARM officials approved this action."

After the employee's spouse accepted a job transfer to Ohio, EPA allowed the employee, who was working for the agency in Washington, to work remotely from Ohio. The deputy director of NETI told Najjum that because a hiring freeze was in place, losing that particular employee would have diminished the office's capabilities, and the employee was considered valuable, so the office decided to find a way to keep the worker employed at EPA.

It sounds like a reasonable decision. But Najjum said the hot-line caller who complained about the arrangement had a point. Without a formal process for employees to apply for the opportunity to telework on a permanent, full-time basis, such a move risks becoming arbitrary, available only to employees who already have a good relationship with management, or to employees who are aware such an arrangement is possible. When employees find out that some of their colleagues have received opportunities and flexibilities that are not widely -- or equally -- available, a decision intended to help one employee can end up hurting morale for others, as, Najjum wrote, was the case for the hot-line caller.

A formal process for telework communicates the opportunity to all employees, offers a clear path to apply for the benefit and allows employees to appeal if they are denied the chance to telework, ensuring the program does not become a reward for favored workers. Having a set of official and publicized standards for such programs also creates benchmarks for managers to use when evaluating employees who work remotely and allows them to suggest improvements, or recommend that an employee be removed from a telework program.

According to Najjum, official policies also require managers and office leaders to make tough decisions about whether an employee is worth keeping on remotely, even if doing so is more expensive. Retaining the employee whose remote work arrangement was the subject of the report cost EPA $17,458 in travel costs alone between September 2000 and September 2008. And because the employee was part time when the arrangement was made but agreed to work full time after the switch, that person's salary rose 13.46 percent.

Perhaps the employee was worth it. But even if that were the case, EPA had no record of such an analysis, Najjum said. In trying to meet the needs of one, valuable employee, the environmental agency failed to see the forest for the trees.

 
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