As telework has become more prevalent in the federal government, agencies and employees have had to adapt to change. Enhancing capabilities to help workers do their jobs outside the office means new technology, new rules for security and new policies for evaluating performance.
But as the federal workplace has changed, so has people's understanding of telework. Once viewed as a benefit for exemplary employees, telework increasingly is seen as a tool to boost productivity, a way to increase diversity in the government, and perhaps as the new norm for carrying out federal work.
It's a discussion that's gone on for years. Telework advocates long have had to argue against the idea, among rank-and-file workers and managers, that federal employees who work outside the office are getting away with something. But there is still a difference between showing skeptics that telework is a legitimate way to extend flexibility to employees who have proved themselves and convincing them the workplace is going to mean something very different than traditional office space in the future.
Recently, a number of developments suggest the thinking on telework has evolved from treating workplace flexibility as an exception to serious consideration of whether it should be the rule.
The Telework Exchange, for example, has to focus on whether telework could be the answer to recruiting a greater number of disabled employees into government. The organization recently sponsored a survey on why there are few disabled federal employees, and is highlighting the issue at its town hall meeting on April 8. While Cindy Auten, general manager of the Exchange, says the idea needs to be quantified, and it might be much easier to employ workers with mobility challenges if the workplace came to them, rather than requiring such employees to travel into the office.
During the February snowstorms that shut down federal offices in the Washington metro area for four days, Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., suggested that unless it was universal, the benefit of teleworking actually would penalize employees who were able to do their job from home during the closure while their colleagues received a day off. Because of that disparity, Connolly said at the time that teleworking employees should receive incentives to make up for working while their colleagues did not.
Such disparities are inevitable during a transition to a more flexible workplace model. It's impossible to object to the idea that the government should continue operating during emergencies. But it's also important to acknowledge that the government lost less money than expected during the February shutdown because some employees worked while others did not.
That transition will take time, but only when every federal employee has the ability to telework, whether on a regular basis or to support continuity of operations in an emergency, will it stop being viewed as a perk or a burden. When OPM rolls out a pilot program this year that will scrap the requirement that 400 employees work in the office, it will go a step beyond existing telework programs. The prospect of eliminating the traditional office altogether could make telework routine.