Definition of 'telework,' measure of benefits still lacking

Many agencies don’t have a handle on how many employees actually work away from the office, and lack ways to quantify productivity gains.

Senators and officials testifying before a government oversight subcommittee Tuesday questioned how to best define and assess telework.

Despite apparent general agreement about the potential benefits of the concept, some participants in a hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management expressed doubts about implementation.

Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, chairman of the subcommittee, voiced concern that no clear definition of "teleworker" applies across all federal agencies.

The subcommittee called the hearing to discuss a bill (S. 1000) that would define a teleworker as an employee who works away from the office at least two business days a week. The new definition met resistance from both the Government Accountability Office and the Patent and Trademark Office.

GAO maintained that it might cause confusion when applied alongside the broader definitions that already exist in federal telework guides and in other legislation. Jon Dudas, director of PTO, testified in favor of the bill generally, but said in written testimony that the two-day definition will not give agencies enough flexibility in coming up with telework programs that fit their "individual business needs."

Agencies also lack accurate estimates of how many employees work away from the office, said Bernice Steinhardt, director of strategic issues at the Government Accountability Office. Right now many agencies look at numbers of telework agreements signed to determine how many employees are using the arrangement. But just because workers sign an agreement doesn't mean they work away from the office regularly, Steinhardt said, and many agencies do not track how often signatories actually work from home.

Steinhardt also recommended that agencies find ways to measure whether potential benefits of telework, which include reducing traffic congestion and vehicle emissions and increasing productivity, are actually being achieved.

Establishing measurable program goals was one of four practices GAO cited as important in a 2003 report on telework. The others were development of the business case for telework, creation of systems to gather data on results, and implementation of reforms to fix problems uncovered. To perform this last step, agencies must undertake the other three practices. But none of the four agencies GAO studied consistently performed any of these steps.

Dudas said his office, which has a large telework program, has compared the productivity of telecommuters to that of their in-house counterparts, and has found teleworkers are sometimes more productive.

"Our telework programs begin with the gathering of statistics and metrics," said Dudas, whose office has been praised for embracing the work arrangement. Because PTO has found a way to measure productivity -- sometimes down to the quarter-hour -- managers can tell if workers start underperforming when they're at home, he said.

Before PTO could implement its telework policy, it had to work with the three labor unions that represent its employees, Dudas said. The agency also had to create separate telework programs for different types of employees. Under the PTO system, patent examiners and judges often can work away from the office full time, whereas other employees can telework part time or on an as-needed basis. Creating separate programs has been critical to the patent office's success, Dudas said.