Welles: Telework is a no-brainer

So why aren't more federal employees allowed to use GSA's telework centers?

With hurricanes disrupting businesses, sending gas prices sky high and clogging highways with evacuees, telework should be a no-brainer. But federal employees' use of telework is barely expanding because managers resist letting employees out of their sight.

Still, some agencies get it. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, for example, continues to expand its telework options for patent examiners and trademark attorneys, which saves money on office space. The General Services Administration pays for federal employees to work at its telework centers. GSA-sponsored Washington Metropolitan Telework Centers in Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia have opened their doors to more federal employees, at no charge to agencies through Dec. 31.

Last month, Cox Communications, Comcast, Microsoft, Teletrips, the Northern Virginia Technology Council Foundation and the Telework Coalition hosted a conference on the importance of telework in Washington, D.C., and Northern Virginia. The hosts said the one-hour Web-based conference saved 2,500 gallons of gas for the participants who otherwise would have had to drive to a hotel or convention center.

In video remarks, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) said he was disappointed with efforts to comply with a law requiring agencies to encourage 25 percent of eligible federal employees to telework.

In a letter to President Bush, Wolf wrote that federal contractors in the region devastated by Hurricane Katrina had contacted him. "Many of these private-sector businesses are utilizing telework in order to continue operations," Wolf wrote. "But unfortunately, they are having a difficult time working with their federal government counterparts who are not being allowed to participate in telework programs."

As the federal government lags behind private-sector efforts, state and local governments are reaping the benefits. Rob Roy, a supervisor at the Virginia Department of Taxation, said 70 of 150 auditors at the department use broadband service to work from home. Telework has enabled the department to close eight district offices and save money. In Fairfax County, Va., one of the largest counties in the United States, telework has reduced unexcused absences among county government workers and increased productivity, said Gerry Connolly, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

"With the time saved from commuting, people also have more time to volunteer in the community," he said. "We also have safer neighborhoods with more adult presence."

Even the security of the government's computer systems does not impede agencies' expanding use of telework, according to a recent report from a cybersecurity public policy advocacy group.

According to the Washington Metropolitan Telework Centers, the region's workers have the third longest and most costly commutes in the country. And traffic will worsen as several long-term transportation projects add to traffic problems.

As Bob Dylan says in a song, one has to ask, "How many times can a man turn his head, pretending he just doesn't see?" The case for telework should be self-evident, but the answer is still blowin' in the wind. Maybe this year's lessons will help. n

Welles is a retired federal employee who has worked in the public and private sectors. She lives in Bethesda, Md., and writes about work life topics for Federal Computer Week. She can be reached at judywelles@fcw.com.

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