Federal employees were “telecommuting” in small numbers already in the late 1990s, but the practice has come in and out of favor in the ensuing years.

Federal employees were “telecommuting” in small numbers already in the late 1990s, but the practice has come in and out of favor in the ensuing years. Thais Ceneviva/Getty

That Time Even Minimum Telework Was Viewed With Wonder and Fear

Back then, it was called “telecommuting,” and managers didn’t know what to make of it. Some still don’t.

The latest in an intermittent series looking back at groundbreaking, newsmaking, appalling and amusing events in government history.

In 1995, Clifford Stoll, an astronomer and famed hacker hunter, wrote an essay for Newsweek in which he argued that the Internet was destined for failure. Among his many hilariously inaccurate predictions was that “no computer network will change the way government works.”

Eventually, of course, exactly that occurred. But even before the Internet revolutionized the world of work, the idea of ending the daily trudge to the office was catching on in the federal workforce. By 1997, about 10,000 federal employees were “telecommuting,” the term of art at the time for the practice, along with “flexiplace.” In early 1996, a presidential council had approved the National Telecommuting Initiative, which set a goal of having 160,000 federal employees working remotely at least part of the time by 2002. 

These early teleworkers weren’t working exclusively or even mostly from home offices. The General Services Administration reported that 95% of government telecommuters divided their time between a federal office and home. The other 5% worked out of their agency’s quarters and a GSA-run telecommuting center. The idea of the GSA centers was to create satellite offices near big cities as an alternative for long-distance commuters. There were 11 in the Washington area at the beginning of 1997.

By today’s standards, late 20th century telework was almost comically primitive. Computers weren’t even deemed essential for remote workers. "The most fundamental equipment a telecommuter needs is a telephone," Jack Nilles, president of JALA International, a telework consulting group in Los Angeles, told Government Executive in 1997. "And for about a quarter of telecommuters, that's it.” (He wasn’t talking about a cellphone, either.)

Telework wasn’t for everybody, the Office of Personnel Management insisted. Employees who work remotely even part of the time should be "well organized, highly disciplined self-starters who require little supervision and who have received at least fully successful ratings," the agency said. Nevertheless, even these employees often faced skepticism from their bosses. "Some managers and supervisors resisted allowing staff to participate in flexiplace because they did not believe that employees were working unless they could see them," the Government Accountability Office (then known as the General Accounting Office) reported. That attitude would persist to a greater or lesser degree to this day.

At the turn of the 21st century, only about 25,000 federal workers were telecommuting, despite the fact that agencies were being urged to develop “virtual teams” of employees. In such teams, said James Buckner, then the chief information officer at Army Materiel Command, "workers should focus on product delivery versus hour delivery.”

That concept apparently didn’t appeal to managers and executives, because telework remained very slow to catch on. By 2003, just 4% of the federal workforce was teleworking, far below targets set by executive branch agencies and Congress. That amounted to a little more than 100,000 workers, out of more than 750,000 who were deemed eligible for remote work. Policies were all over the map. At one point, OPM deemed workers who had a child at home ineligible for telework. Before the ubiquity of home computers and high-speed Internet, other agencies balked at providing equipment for teleworkers to use.

So what caused telework to catch on? A combination of advances in information technology, fear of terrorist attacks and repeated natural disasters. By 2010, the year that President Obama signed the Telework Enhancement Act, remote work was starting to be viewed as vital to agencies’ continuity of operations plans

"There's a lot of talk about the trouble of commuting to work, but to me the real national security issue is if we had something that disrupted the ability of the federal workforce to get to the office,” said John Streufert, deputy chief information officer for information security at the State Department, at a Government Executive event that year. “Could we continue to provide the services of government? I think you'd find that many departments and agencies would have problems." 

Just as these arguments started to win the day, the backlash set in. In 2014, the Patent and Trademark Office, which had won praise for its massive telework program, came under fire when allegations of employee abuse of the practice came to light. Remote workers were accused of submitting time cards overstating the hours they worked, delaying work until the end of a reporting quarter and submitting time cards for work that hadn’t yet been performed. Suddenly, all telework programs were viewed with suspicion.

And it wasn’t just in government that the bloom was off the rose. In 2013, Internet pioneer Yahoo abolished its telework program, ordering all employees to return to the office. Bank of America, Aetna and IBM scaled back or eliminated remote work arrangements as well. “Why are big companies calling their remote workers back to the office?” asked NBC News in 2017. 

The same question could’ve been asked of federal agencies. In 2018, the Agriculture Department dramatically altered its telework policy, reducing the number of days per week employees could work remotely from four to one. Other Cabinet departments, including Commerce and Education, tried to cut back on working from home as well.

Just when it looked like the world had reached peak telework, the pandemic hit. In short order, federal agencies shifted to a posture of “maximum telework.” Many stayed that way until the COVID-19 state of emergency ended on May 11, 2023. 

To many Democrats, the forced experiment in large-scale telework was a roaring success. Remote work “saves money, helps recruit top talent, makes environmental sense, and ensures a continuity of operations at agencies,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va. House Republicans, on the other hand, voted to roll back telework flexibility in a measure they called the Stopping Home Office Work’s Unproductive Problems Act. (Get it?)

It looks like federal employees’ ride on the telework rollercoaster is destined to continue.