Telework mandates open doors to new business

Seizing on government requirements can bring success to federal contractors

Telework is one of many topics that federal employees chatter about during idle moments, but it is increasingly becoming a reality, too. As agencies try to comply with existing mandates and anticipate coming ones, companies are taking notes.

Government mandates are one of the most important factors that companies monitor in planning their business strategies. When agencies are under orders, companies offering technologies that can help agencies fulfill those demands can expand their businesses.

Mandates have varying levels of impact, depending on the size of the company, said Larry Allen, executive vice president of the Coalition for Government Procurement.

“Companies of any size will certainly try to position a solution to meet a mandate,” Allen said. “I see smaller companies in particular really going into the mandate as a way to drive business. A larger company will put the mandate into its larger strategy, while a smaller business will build a whole go-to-market strategy around a mandate.”

Telework in particular is an early-stage market trend, said Judy Welles, a Federal Computer Week columnist who is retired from a career that included government and industry stints. A federal mandate requires agencies to encourage 25 percent of their eligible employees to telecommute, but compliance has been uneven, Welles said.

“The law would levy financial penalties on agencies that don’t significantly increase teleworking employees, but so far, no penalties have been set,” she said. The Office of Personnel Management plans to make managers more receptive to the idea through training, and some agencies are aggressively pursuing it, she added.

“But only a small percentage of employees actually telework so far,” Welles said.

Some members of Congress, including Reps. Tom Davis (R-Va.) and Frank Wolf (R-Va.), support telecommuting and are working to promote it. That means that telework — with employees working from home offices or telework centers near their homes — could become more widespread in the federal government. Some companies are hoping that will happen.

Digging a tele-tunnel
Juniper Networks is one company banking part of its future on the assumption that agencies will pursue telework. The company recently earned Common Criteria certification for its Secure Access virtual private network (VPN) products.

Based on Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) security, Secure Access has met rigorous security standards, said Vivian Ganitsky, director of product management at Juniper.

“Telework is just one of the mandates, but a pretty important one,” Ganitsky said.

Secure Access allows network managers to set detailed levels of network access for users connecting from remote locations. It can even provide more- or less-restricted access based on the user’s location.

An agency employee connecting from a government-issued and government-maintained laptop computer from a field location, for example, might have greater network access privileges than when logging in from home.

That capability, the Common Criteria certification and other measures will pay off if agencies adopt telework programs with increasing enthusiasm, Ganitsky said.

Agencies “want to be able to open up their systems and allow for telework, but they don’t want to compromise their security,” she said. “They want to assure that when a user comes in, they’re only getting access to the applications they need and not to the entire network.”

SSL VPN is more secure than competing VPN technologies, she said.

“There are all kinds of security measures you want, and that’s where SSL VPNs have been great,” Ganitsky said. At the same time, she added, “there are also all sorts of needs around having agencies be more productive in how they exchange information.”

Juniper has other products in line for Common Criteria certification and others already through it, Ganitsky she said. That, too, is a sign of a company’s commitment to addressing government mandates, she said.

“It’s a rigorous process,” she added. “The Common Criteria process is lengthy. Once you start, you have to commit to it for years.”

Ganitsky said the existence of a mandate, however, is not always a solid foundation for a business strategy. The technology that companies offer also has to make business sense.

“Independent of some of the legislation and mandates, although that does speed things up, the fundamental problem that SSL VPNs exist to solve is a fundamental business need in the world we live in today,” she said. All organizations, not just in government, must open their systems to remote access.

“The fact that there’s a telework act has pushed our product through many agencies, but in general, for anyone in today’s world, it’s just commonly understood that you have to give more access,” Ganitsky said.

Intel pushes on telework
Chipmaker Intel is so sold on the telework concept — more than 80,000 of its own employees work remotely — that it is undertaking a marketing effort to spur the government forward. The company is launching a campaign this month to “blanket the [Capital] Beltway with the message that we think it is time for this [government] community to get serious about telecommuting,” said Kevin Quinn, a leader of the company’s public-sector marketing group.

He added that the government’s definition of telework may not match the private sector’s. One example, Quinn said, is the concept of telework centers, locations that federal employees can drive to that are closer to home than an agency’s headquarters.

“Intel does not buy into this concept at all,” he said. “In fact, we think it’s one of the strangest things we’ve heard. We think telework means working wherever you happen to be.”

Part of the government’s resistance, Quinn said, is a cultural attitude among midlevel managers that makes it hard for them to shake the fear that if employees are not sitting in a chair in the office, they aren’t working.

Here’s looking at you
Another company angling for telework-related sales is Tandberg, which makes videoconferencing systems. For less than $3,000, remote workers can set up a console that they can use to communicate with colleagues via video or audio.

The widespread adoption of broadband makes the company’s products an easier sell, said Rick Snyder, the company’s president. Videoconferencing, he said, is now fast, reliable, easy to set up and far less expensive than it used to be.

“We see telework as a significant driver in the growth of visual communications and videoconferencing,” Snyder said. About 40 percent of Tandberg’s customers are in the federal government and another 15 percent or so are in the state and local government market, he said. The ability to build on government mandates and initiatives begins with established relationships and a history of accounting for customer needs, Snyder said.

“Through our direct relationships with agencies, our research and development [staff] is constantly listening to the emerging needs in government,” he said. “We’re continually listening to what those trends are and taking it back to our product development.”

Stand-alone video consoles might not be an easy sell for cash-conscious agencies, but Snyder said Tandberg can make a case.

“If you think about communications overall, the highest impact for all communications are visual communications,” he said. “More than 50 percent is eye contact and body language. [When working from home] you become somewhat isolated. It doesn’t promote team play, it doesn’t promote collaboration. Visual communication becomes an important part of a telework solution.”

Following trends
Chasing trends is not always a success, Allen said. Sometimes government initiatives disappear after a few years of talk. And in all cases, having a credible solution is critically important. So is moving fast.

“There’s a short window,” Allen said. “After the initial opportunity presents, if you’re not one of the first people to take advantage of it, agencies say, ‘We’ve got what we need. Thanks.’ It becomes harder to be in the second or third wave, unless you really do have a better mousetrap.”

Katrina: A test case for telework

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), a strong proponent of telework for government and private-sector employees, wrote a letter to President Bush saying that more agency telework could improve relationships among agencies and contractors.

Referring to relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina, Wolf wrote that many businesses relied on employee telecommuters for continuity of operations. But, he added, businesses “are having a difficult time working with their federal government counterparts who are not being allowed to participate in telework programs.”

In the September 2005 letter, Wolf urged greater support for government telework. “As the nation’s largest employer, the federal government should be the model for telework for every level of government as well as the private sector,” he wrote.

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