Telework triumph doesn’t mean agencies can rest on their laurels

Challenges remain despite a glowing progress report, analyst says.

Although the latest comprehensive report on telework policies in the federal government shows great progress on meeting the imperatives of a 2010 law, it also demonstrates obstacles agencies face in implementing the practice, one analyst said.

The Office of Personnel Management report released Friday demonstrated marked improvements in the use of telework governmentwide, as required by the 2010 Telework Enhancement Act. The law was enacted to encourage working away from the office as a means to save agencies money on real estate, energy and commuter subsidies, and attract employees with more flexible offerings. Telework has proved critical to continuity of operations during emergencies.

Roughly 10 percent of eligible employees teleworked routinely in 2009 compared to 21 percent in 2011, the report found. The 2011 figure still represents less than one-third of employees who are eligible.

"OPM came out and said, ‘Look, this is the beginning, don’t read too much into what we’re finding with this data. It’s going to take some time,' " said Josh Sawislak, a senior fellow at the public-private advocacy group Telework Exchange. But he noted some of the report’s findings demonstrated a sea change in how federal employees view telework. “It used to be an employee benefit, but it’s really now being seen as more of a management tool,” he said.

Management pushback, data collection and myths about security problems are major impediments to growing the practice, he added.

About 26 percent of eligible employees said they did not telework because they have not received management approval to do so, the report said. There are several pervasive perceptions about telework among many managers that agencies must combat to continue meeting the law’s requirements, according to Sawislak.

“I think that’s a very telltale sign, in the data, that we’ve got some very serious issues about management,” he said. “We need to do a better job of training managers, a lot of whom think they manage by attendance.”

Sawislak said better data will be required in future reports, noting some inconsistencies in what agencies were measuring and how they defined various parts of the statute. For example, agencies had different ways of notifying employees of their eligibility to telework. Agencies also had contrasting views of which jobs were considered off-limits for telework due to security concerns.

“If everybody’s not measuring the same thing the same way, it’s hard to compare that unstructured data,” he said.

The report also summarizes why some employees are eligible for telework and others are not. One reason is attributable to “direct handling of secure material.” Sawislak noted in many cases, this issue is becoming more irrelevant due to the shift toward cloud computing.

“When you’re in the cloud, everybody’s a remote worker,” he said. “If you are sitting at home, [information] goes from where you are to some cloud server somewhere, whether it’s operated by a private company or the government -- it comes back through the Internet. [Security concerns] should be no different as long as you have policies and procedures and you follow them.”

Classified information can be a more serious concern, Sawislak said, but the Defense Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence have been looking at that issue with respect to telework compliance and have made significant progress, he said.

The Telework Exchange, along with industry and government leaders and academics, is developing metrics to measure return on investment of the telework law. Tracking “hard” returns on investment -- cost savings from reduced transit subsidies or lower energy consumption -- due to telework is markedly easier than following “soft” returns on investments, such as recruitment and retention.