John Stein Monroe | Telework’s digital tether

FCW Forum blog generates a lively exchange about what it means to work outside the office

Telework, training and security

Many federal security officers are concerned about employees who are not officially part of any telework program but who often work from home in the evenings and on weekends, according to a recent survey by the Telework Exchange, a telework advocacy group.

Many believe that all such ad hoc teleworkers should be required to go through agency telework programs, even though they work from the office during regular business hours.

So we asked readers to share their thoughts: Do they believe such a policy is necessary? Most people who commented said it makes sense. Here is a sampling of what they wrote.

“It does not matter when or where employees work. They all need training in safeguarding government information and property. You never know when you will need to telework — maybe you are sidelined with a broken leg and cannot get to work. Perhaps there could be some type of disaster — flood, fire or the like — [during] which you are unable to go to the office and need to work at home. Telework should be part of every agency’s continuity-of-operations plan. So telework training is part of the COOP.”

“The Navy requires the necessary security training, acknowledgments and certifications prior to granting permission to access the work intranet from home/travel. This is a good policy.”

“My agency appears to be a little more progressive on the telework issue. We have a secure [virtual private network] that allows us to work from any location. Our laptops have special encryption software that would render them useless if they should fall into the wrong hands. In addition, we were issued cables with locks to secure our laptops at all times, even in the office. My job does require me to work at night and during weekends sometimes to make changes to databases and intranet sites. We have security training [and] telework procedures, and I am compensated for the extra hours. It sounds like my organization did its homework in the telework area.”

— John Stein Monroe

It’s never surprising when a news story about telework generates a lot of discussion. But a recent online exchange on the topic took some unexpected turns.

It began last month when the results of a telework survey sponsored by the Telework Exchange raised an interesting question: Should agencies require employees who occasionally work from home after-hours to enroll in an official telework program?

We posted that question on the FCW Forum, our latest blog, and asked for reader feedback. Initially, most comments focused on the security risks posed by ad hoc teleworkers. The consensus: Of course they should enroll. But some readers raised a different issue. It began with the very first comment, by a reader using the alias “Fear of being fired.”

“I have a supervisor who demands work outside the office and to some degree is a bully, demanding the work get done,” the commenter said. “Last month I spent an additional 61 hours, which will not be compensated, for additional work that needed to be completed. We are allowed to claim workers’ comp, but when we attempt to take the time off, she will deny the request stating we are too busy — [and] after six months we lose the hours.”

The problem, wrote an anonymous reader, is that working after-hours is just too easy:

“Employees are suffering from the double-edged sword of technology, with Web-based e-mail, BlackBerries and laptops making it possible for them to work when they are not in the office, but management and compensation practices have not been changed to properly recognize work out of the office,” the reader wrote. “Just look how many years it took to get the travel regulations changed to recognize that employees on travel regularly gave up many hours beyond an eight-hour day without a penny of compensation.”

Compensation is clearly the touchiest subject. Several readers pointed out that forcing employees to work without compensation is illegal and must be reported. But most readers did not complain about being forced, per se. So we followed up with this question: Are feds pressured to work while “off the clock”?

“Those devices of technology that keep you in constant communication have mechanism to turn them off when you do not want to answer them or use them.”

Karen wrote: “Definitely! After the change in our job designations of exempt and nonexempt employees, most of our supervisors forget that overtime starts after eight hours a day. In my agency, those of us who are IT literate, have Web development skills or database skills, and are considered ‘power users’ are expected to do more, including work from home. Additionally, my agency will not pay for training or help with my education, but they expect me to keep up with technology at my own expense and on my own time so that I am more efficient at work.”

It’s not just a matter of employee rights, wrote “Supervisor,” but of performance management.

“Many of the responses don’t differentiate between the number of hours worked and quality of work/performance,” the reader wrote. “These are two separate issues, and I don’t believe this topic addresses ‘dead weight.’ The rub comes when quality performers are required to put in extra time because the scope is consistently beyond the reasonable 40-hour work week. I think that just about every job will have an occasion where extra hours are required, but it also should be a personal choice and not one imposed by the supervisor.”

“Also, if extra hours are required on a regular basis, it becomes a management issue of either scaling down expectations or making resourcing changes accordingly.”

But one reader, wds5, took a more philosophical approach.
“The issue is purchase or theft of a valuable commodity. The only thing I truly possess is time. I possess skills and knowledge, but a stroke or concussion can diminish or destroy those. Thus, I possess skills and knowledge only provisionally.

“My sole possession — time — I trade for something I want. I spend time in the gym so that I have a healthy body, and possibly more time that I can spend. I spend time at work, because I get stuff (money) that I can trade for something else I want. If I am expected/ pressured into spending time at work beyond that for which I’ve contracted (40 hours/week in my case) that is attempted theft, pure and simple. That is the only truthful name for it.”

But a few readers take a different view altogether. As Doc put it, “If you don’t like the working conditions, go work somewhere else.” Readers who agreed with this usually made one of two points. Point one: Government work is, first and foremost, public service.
One government contractor took this view: “This circumstance is not unique to government employees. The many large and small companies that provide mission-critical support to the government as a customer also spend time well beyond those hours considered payable…. If you are well paid and the customer is important and the cause of your work is good and noble, then consider it part of your service — a service for which you are well paid.

“We all need to remember that there are several hundred thousand service members around the world, many of them in harm’s way who get far too little sleep, very little pay and absolutely no ‘free time.’ Very, very few of them ever utter a peep of complaint for the long hours and short pay. They get over it and drive on.”

Point two: Before complaining about being pressured to work long hours, feds should think more carefully about their own interests, Moe wrote.

“I don’t think pressured is the right word,” the commenter wrote. “The opportunity is there for us to do that. If we want to separate ourselves from the pack, to rise above and be noticed, this is one way to do that. But to each his (or her) own. I think right now is the best of all times to be a federal employee. We have all sorts of options. We can, in most cases, choose to take advantage of the technologies that enable us to telework, or not. We can choose to dedicate more than eight hours a day to our careers, or not. And we can make those choices without fearing for our jobs.”

A contractor added a healthy reminder for everyone who is straining against the digital tether represented by the BlackBerry and other technologies of convenience:

“Those devices of technology that keep you in constant communication have mechanisms to turn them off when you do not want to answer them or use them,” the contractor wrote.

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