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‘Telework’ isn’t working, some say

Panelists wonder whether the word itself is hurting the benefit’s reputation.

The days of "telework" in the federal government could be numbered, at least under that name.

The practice of working outside the office isn’t going anywhere, but dropping the use of the word “telework” could help make the benefit more widespread in agencies, according to participants in a Tuesday discussion focused on increasing telework among federal employees. Encouraging agencies and federal managers to embrace telework has been difficult over the last decade, officials acknowledged, in part, because the word simply makes people nervous (“If I can’t see you, then you aren’t working”) and it doesn’t adequately convey the mutual benefits to employees and agencies of hustling outside the office.

“It’s one of those inflamed words,” said Wade Hannum, director of the General Services Administration’s performance and worklife policy division within the agency’s chief people office. Hannum said he tries to avoid using the term telework and instead focuses on the concepts of performance and workforce flexibility. “We’re not talking about telework. We are talking about work and performance,” he said during the Capitol Hill event sponsored by the House Smart Contracting Caucus and moderated by Jason Miller, executive editor of Federal News Radio.

The word "telework" should be banned and replaced with the phrase “workforce strategy,” said Steve Teubner, vice president of consulting in CGI Federal’s business engineering group. “I felt the focus on [the concept of] telework was distracting for the overall goals we were trying to achieve,” Teubner said, referring to his experience in real estate consulting for public and private organizations.

Telework helps agencies save money on expenses ranging from real estate to employee transit subsides, participants noted. The cost and efficient implementation of information technology can be obstacles for IT-challenged Uncle Sam, but the biggest impediment to the widespread use of telework in government often is cultural. “There hasn’t been a sufficient mandate to make telework happen [in government],” Hannum said. “The model is coming to maturity now.”

GSA was an early adopter of telework among federal agencies; its former administrator, Martha Johnson, who resigned Monday amid a scandal involving excessive spending at the agency, was a strong proponent of telework and made it a signature issue during her tenure. Johnson was scheduled to participate in Tuesday’s telework discussion, but did not appear.

Congress directed the government in 2000 to establish telework policies for eligible federal workers, and lawmakers passed legislation in 2010 that updated the decade-old law. Currently, about 120,000 members of the 2.1 million government workforce telework regularly -- a drop in the proverbial bucket, according to some observers. Many federal employees have long complained that their agencies have not allowed them to work off-site for various reasons, despite their eligibility for the benefit.

“Making the pain of the same greater than the pain of change is not necessarily a bad thing,” Hannum said, referring to the need for enforcing, and not simply promoting, telework in government. “I think there should be a forcing function.”

For example, Hannum suggested tying an agency’s environmental sustainability mandates to telework, or reducing the amount of parking available to employees as ways to push the government to implement the policy more broadly. Teubner agreed with such an approach, noting when he was a consultant, a chief executive officer’s decision to stop leasing real estate or limit available office space frequently forced a culture change toward telework.

“It forced them to think about how they worked; that was the catalyst,” he said.