4 ingredients of a telework success

When blizzards blanketed Washington in February, some federal agencies saw their telework programs transformed into continuity-of-operations plans. In some cases, that transformation was no accident.

At the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, many business units remained productive through the back-to-back blizzards. Danette Campbell, senior adviser for telework at USPTO, said the agency’s widespread use of telework helped it soldier through the winter chaos.

“Because we have 5,654 employees teleworking one to five days a week, we were perfectly positioned for a COOP episode,” she said. “We practice this on a regular and recurring basis. Here, remote work…is part of the way we conduct business at the agency.”

More than half of USPTO’s employees telework at least some of the time, and 7,000 of the 9,716 positions are eligible for remote work. So USPTO is something of a seasoned pro when it comes to telework. However, the same can’t be said for other agencies.

All agencies must have a COOP plan that outlines how they will operate in the event of office closings or other disruptions. But the existence of telework programs is less structured. And the idea of making a telework program an integral part of a COOP plan is even less common, though the two naturally go together.

Last winter’s government office closings exposed the limitations of some of the telework programs that were pressed into emergency service. A report issued in July by the Partnership for Public Service and Booz Allen Hamilton noted that the snowstorms gave agencies the opportunity to test IT systems used to support remote workers.

And what was the conclusion? “Test results varied,” according to the report.

The reviewers concluded that agencies with advanced telework programs functioned smoothly during the crisis, while agencies with less cohesive programs encountered IT problems. Another problem: According to the Office of Personnel Management, only 44 of 78 agencies have made telework part of their COOP planning.

“The snow emergency appeared to simply be a situation where the agencies [that] had taken the time to implement a telework program and were actually teleworking on a consistent basis before the snowstorm were able to do so successfully during the snow emergency,” said Robin Mack, CEO of Mack Global Consulting, a telework solutions provider. “Those who had not were simply unprepared to effectively telework.”

Beyond concerns about inclement weather or flu outbreaks closing offices unexpectedly, recent developments could nudge more government managers in the telework direction. The Senate passed a bill in September that some experts describe as the strongest legislative push yet for telework. The Telework Improvements Act of 2010 (H.R. 1722) would require agencies to develop telework policies that support eligible employees. At press time, the House had not yet voted on the Senate’s compromise bill.

So what can agencies do to deal with the demands of routine telework while preparing for special circumstances, such as fire, flood or excessive snowfall?

Here are the four essential elements of a telework toolkit. Making adequate provisions for all four elements is necessary, but not every teleworker needs a totally decked-out office at home. More modest equipment and network access needs can be met securely and cost-effectively, enabling agencies to expand the ranks of those who are ready to telework, even if they are only asked to do so in an emergency.

1. User Computing

For many agencies, the standard-issue telework computer is a laptop PC with antivirus and other security software, such as hard-drive encryption. Some agencies offer variations to accommodate various job functions and differences in the frequency of telework.

For example, USPTO offers a comprehensive telework setup for patent attorneys named the Enterprise Remote Access standard suite. It includes a government-furnished laptop and docking station, a dual monitor for examining patents, network router, keyboard, voice-over-IP software and headset, and a multifunction printer, among other elements. That configuration is for employees who telework four or five days a week.

“They relinquish their office space here and work from home,” Campbell said. “We actually give them the same suite of equipment they would have if they still had an office here.”

USPTO offers a scaled-back version of the standard ERA suite for nonproduction employees who don’t examine patents and telework only one to three days a week. That setup includes the agency-issued laptop, docking station and VOIP headset, but it lacks the dual monitor and other components of the fully loaded telework setup.

USPTO now offers a third option for business units that want to deploy teleworkers without incurring the hardware expenses of the ERA suites. The agency began offering its ERA Portal, a virtual telework environment, in fiscal 2009.

With that option, employees use their own computer to telework. To create a secure connection from their home to USPTO’s Web portal, they use an agency-issued security token, a small hardware device that generates a one-time password, in conjunction with virtual private network software. The portal lets teleworkers remotely access their office-based PCs, so they can use all the typical office applications. More than 400 employees now use the portal to telework.

The ERA Portal was purely a cost-saving measure, Campbell said. The standard ERA Suite costs a little less than $2,800, while the only user-device cost associated with the portal is the $180 VOIP headset and about $100 for the token. As for the user-furnished equipment, requirements are few. For instance, USPTO recommends that users’ machines have at least 1G of RAM.

The Defense Department has its own inexpensive solution that gets around the need to furnish laptops for employees who are only occasionally pressed into telework. DOD’s Lightweight Portable Security-Remote Access uses bootable, open-source software that works with most Windows, Macintosh and Linux computers. It creates a nonpersistent trusted node for secure Web browsing, cloud computing and network access.

Teleworkers can run the LPS-Remote Access CD on their home computers. The CD boots a Linux operating system and installs nothing on the client computer, running only in RAM to bypass any local malware and leave no record of the session.

Approved by DOD's CIO in December 2009 for COOP use, more than 30 DOD organizations with more than 58,000 employees have since adopted LPS-Remote Access. The software is available for all federal agencies and contractors.

2. Secure Connection

No one wants telework to become a conduit for network intruders, data loss or malware, so agencies need to provide a secure way to access IT resources.

A security token and VPN connection, such as the one that USPTO and others use, provide one line of defense. The combination offers a mechanism for telework, but it can also play a role in facilitating COOP plans.

At USPTO, if an employee designated for certain duties during a COOP episode was not already a teleworker, he or she could use the portal after receiving a security token.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory also has created a flexible telework program that can easily take on a COOP role, said Frank Rukavina, the lab’s director of sustainability.

NREL’s regular teleworkers use a government-issued laptop, security token and VPN to access the agency’s intranet and IT resources, so they are already prepared to work from home as needed.

However, all other NREL employees also obtain a security token and VPN log-in. They are encouraged to sign a telework agreement — see our policy tips in the next section — even if they plan to telework only occasionally, Rukavina said.

Back in the office, NREL has enough bandwidth and VPN accessibility to deal with COOP events, such as snowstorms, that can lead to a spike in telework numbers, Rukavina added.

However, VPN isn’t the only security game in town.

Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention take a different approach. Teleworkers authenticate to a virtual workspace rather than CDC’s internal network, said Curt Sizemore, information system security officer at CDC’s IT Services Office.

The agency’s remote access system, named Citgo, for CDC IT on the Go, is built on Citrix Systems products. CDC configured a large Citrix server farm for Microsoft Office applications and specialized software that an agency employee might use while in the office, Sizemore said.

“This provides [employees] with a virtual desktop they are familiar with,” he added.

About 10,000 employees connect to Citgo every month, said Joe Jackson, chief of the customer services branch at CDC’s IT Services Office. Those users take a public network path to a Citrix NetScaler appliance that sits outside CDC’s primary computing environment.

Sizemore said Citrix represents CDC’s primary connection for teleworkers. CDC will provide VPN connections in some situations, but use of that technology is limited to reduce the risk of an intruder exploiting a teleworker’s remote computer to obtain access to an agency’s network, he added.

However, the virtualized telework setting does present some problems. Because all eligible employees typically won’t be teleworking at the same time, building a virtual desktop for every worker makes little economic sense.

“Most people won’t invest in twice as much infrastructure” as they need to cover the expected telework force, said Joe Brown, president of Accelera Solutions, a virtualization solutions provider.

Brown suggested that agencies account for all critical personnel and about one-third of the general user population who are central to operations and have the capability to telework. With that list in hand, agencies can build infrastructure and buy licenses accordingly.

But in the case of COOP incidents, agencies might need to suddenly expand telework capacity.

CDC offers Microsoft Office Outlook Web Access as a solution for occasional teleworkers. Lew Newlin, associate director of IT infrastructure, emergency preparedness and security at CDC’s IT Services Office, said Web mail lets CDC employees perform some work in COOP situations “without having to build a whole virtual infrastructure for every person in your organization.”

Agencies can also power up some extra virtual machines on the fly.

“The good news is if you have enough infrastructure and enough licenses, the technology is elastic enough to handle a surge very easily,” Brown said.

A virtualization platform might be oversubscribed by 30 percent or so, he added. Agencies might need to purchase additional licenses to make that happen, but many manufacturers offer burst packs or surge licenses that can help agencies deal with COOP situations, Brown said.

3. Policy

Technology infrastructure puts employees on the road to telework, but managers and employees need rules to keep the telework program on track. Agencies have a few resources to help them get started.

Michael Dziak, chief operating officer at e-Work.com, a virtual workplace consulting firm, pointed to OPM, which provides guidance on creating a telework policy. OPM offers a telework guide and co-sponsors an interagency telework website. Dziak also cited the Telework Exchange as a source of information.

An agency’s telework policy covers employee eligibility, spells out requirements for setting up a home office and sets rules for the use of government-furnished vs. user-furnished IT gear. On the eligibility side, agencies must determine what types of positions are appropriate for telework.

NREL’s formal telework program is open to all employees regardless of their line of work, provided they meet certain criteria. “Looking at telework, we wanted it to be available to every worker classification but also didn’t want it to impact their performance,” Rukavina said.

Although other agencies designate certain jobs as eligible for telework, NREL lets supervisors decide which tasks and employees are suitable for working off campus.

“It comes down to the supervisors,” Rukavina said. “They make the decision: Is the person who is applying for telecommuting a good fit? Is that person’s work a good fit?”

To qualify for telework, NREL employees must have been with the lab for at least six months. Rukavina said that gives employees time to learn about the organization, how it operates and its safety procedures. Another telework requirement: An employee’s most recent performance appraisal must indicate that the employee at least meets expectations.

Although the telework policy provides general guidelines, another document — the telework agreement — sets forth an individual teleworker’s responsibilities.

At NREL, the telework agreement outlines, among other things, how often employees intend to telework, where they will work and what they aim to accomplish. Rukavina said NREL manages employee performance by objective, and with teleworkers, the idea is for a supervisor and employee to establish a set of milestones.

“We ask the supervisor and employee to keep that as a working model and revise as necessary during the year,” Rukavina said.

The perks of telework might be enough of an incentive to keep employees on the straight and narrow. Otherwise, they might find their telework agreement terminated. NREL supervisors can end an employee’s telework program at their discretion.

“We state this as a privilege program, not as a right of employment,” Rukavina said. “[Employees] understand if they want to telecommute, they have to make sure they are fulfilling the trust factor for their supervisor.”

4. Training

Employees need to be brought up-to-speed on an agency’s telework policy and technology particulars, and that’s where training comes in. Agencies offer a mix of training programs, which, predictably, break down into IT and non-IT segments.

USPTO’s Campbell said her agency offers two-tiered training. The nontechnical training covers the agency’s telework policy and business unit guidelines, and it includes discussions on topics such as how teleworkers should communicate with supervisors and work teams. IT training addresses the equipment telecommuters will use.

NREL employees approved for telework go through a telework skills training module. The 45-minute training video, developed by e-Work.com, is available online. Supervisors also view a training module that discusses how to manage teleworkers.

In addition, employees undergo safety training and are given a checklist of issues to look for in their telework environment, such as having an ergonomic workstation. Employees must follow NREL protocols for reporting accidents and incidents in the home, Rukavina said, adding that employees are covered by workers’ compensation when they telework.

Training provides a reminder that telework is about more than laptops, server farms and access methods. Finding the right technology among the many available options is usually not a problem, Mack said.

“The difficulty in most cases with formalizing telework programs is the program infrastructure itself,” she said. “The planning, implementing, training, managing and measuring of a telework program can mean the difference between success and failure.”

GCN senior writer William Jackson contributed to this article.

Who's Fed 100-worthy?

Nominations are now open for the 2015 Federal 100 awards. Get the details and submit your picks!

Featured

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above