Wired for telework
Federal agencies struggle to overcome reservations about a flexible work option they must offer eligible employees
- By Wade-Hahn Chan
- Jul 10, 2006
Torrential rainstorms stalled over the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area June 26 and disrupted normal work routines in the nation’s capital. The heavy downpours left major thoroughfares covered with mud, forcing local authorities to close some subway stations. The record rainfall flooded the buildings that house the Environmental Protection Agency, the Internal Revenue Service, the National Archives and the Justice Department, and in some cases forced them to close for the week.
For officials responsible for continuity of operations, the disruptive effects of flooding reinforced their efforts to expand federal telework programs.
Telework has become a major component of federal COOP planning. The Bush administration released a national pandemic response plan May 3 that asks the Office of Personnel Management to revise its telework guidance to include COOP. That same month, the Government Accountability Office issued a report recommending that the Federal Emergency Management Agency clarify its guidance on using telework in emergency situations.
Despite requirements to establish programs for COOP and telework, federal agencies have not had an easy time complying with those mandates. The National Treasury Employees Union and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives held a 12-hour marathon session in May as the Federal Service Impasses Panel tried to hammer out an agencywide telework agreement.
Despite all the talk about telework programs, many agencies are uncertain about how to implement and manage them. “The big question is how do we define best practices so the majority [of agencies] can embrace telework?” said Stephen O’Keeffe, chief executive officer and president of the Telework Exchange, a telework advocacy group.
Making your COOP fly
Some best practices, however, are beginning to gain currency. Agencies must decide what their essential functions are within the first 48 to 72 hours of a crisis that disrupts normal government operations, said Mike Yea, a member of the technology team in the Homeland Security Department’s National Capital Region coordination office. After 72 hours, resources will be scarce, and agencies will have difficulty updating their infrastructure or performing additional functions, said Yea, who spoke last month at a Telework Exchange-sponsored town hall meeting.
Agencies must also realize that letting sensitive data be used in remote workplaces is unavoidable in COOP programs. After a recent well-publicized data theft affecting 26.5 million veterans and active-duty military members, the Department of Veterans Affairs halted the practice of allowing employees to take sensitive data out of the office. Yea said such restrictions are not an option in COOP programs.
Many basic daily functions of government, such as processing benefit payments, require federal employees to gain access to sensitive information, Yea said. “It’s not about e-mail and use of telephones,” he said. “We need to replicate as much as possible the primary and secondary essential functions that we need in order to provide our mission.”
Yea said sensitive data can be secured, for example, through the use of virtual private networks and biometric scanners or personal identity verification cards. PIV cards are a portable, secure means of identifying and verifying an employee’s identity.
Telework planners should consider energy efficiency when planning programs to support COOP during a crisis, experts say. Officials should anticipate having to use generators to keep computer networks operating, a lesson learned from Hurricane Katrina. COOP experts also learned that disaster recovery systems should be designed to require minimal support from a help desk or information technology support team.
Most of all, good COOP planning requires employee awareness, Yea said. The best way to cultivate that awareness is to adopt telework early so that it can be practiced and perfected. “Studies suggest people who have teleworked for a while have the ability to be flexible and adapt to emergency situations,” he said. Telework functions best if programs, policies and infrastructures are established before a crisis happens.
Testing the waters
Agencies that have implemented large-scale telework programs typically began with small trial programs.
The Trademark Division of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office began experimenting with telework in 1997. It ran the initial program for two years with only 18 trademark lawyers. The success and popularity of the program led the agency to expand the test.
“We have very extensive guidelines [that] really speak to just about every situation we can think of,” said Deborah Cohn, USPTO’s deputy commissioner for trademark operations. “We really think it’s important that everything is spelled out so everyone knows what to expect.” USPTO uses telework to save money on leased office space and attract new employees.
USPTO’s Patent Division learned from the Trademark Division’s telework experiences. “We have people on the waiting list” for the telework trial program, said Vickers Meadows, chief administrative officer at USPTO.
Telework helped solve a geographical problem for the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration. That office has 849 employees scattered nationwide in 73 offices. Ben Trapp, assistant director for client services at TIGTA, said a small-scale telework program is an opportunity to test what works and what doesn’t.
Through extensive testing, TIGTA and the Trademark Division created technology requirements for telework. TIGTA assigns teleworkers agency-owned equipment, including laptop computers, and high-speed Internet lines, for which the agency pays the installation fees and 50 percent of the monthly fees. Cohn said technology was the biggest telework challenge for the division because, in 1997, most teleworkers had only slow dial-up connections and few had laptops.
In 2002, the division introduced hoteling, a program in which employees who do most of their work off-site give up their offices and instead make reservations to use shared work space at USPTO or a location closer to their homes.
Although hoteling is accepted among trademark attorneys, it has been controversial among patent examiners, whose union expressed concerns about its members relinquishing their offices.
In defense of hoteling, Meadows said telework is a voluntary option for patent and trademark employees and that giving up an office is a small price to pay for the option of working from home or closer to home.
In some agencies, telework has increased employee morale. Of the 747 TIGTA employees who telework, 77.5 percent said in a recent survey they were satisfied with their jobs.
The Trademark Division reported that among the 90 percent of employees who said they were satisfied with their jobs, 90 percent cited telework as a major reason for their overall satisfaction.
Many agencies and businesses report that supervisors and managers, not employees, are the most reluctant to accept telework. In June, Hewlett-Packard curtailed a telework program for its IT employees after deciding that face-to-face interaction was necessary for effective teams.
Randall Mott, HP’s executive vice president and chief information officer, said he believes that IT employees collaborate better when they work in close physical proximity to one another.
Because HP was one of the first U.S. companies to introduce an extensive telework program, its decision reinforces one of the major reservations that managers have about telework — its unmanageability.
Michael Bell, research vice president of infrastructure management at the consulting firm Gartner, said that many managers are concerned about the negative impact of telework on productivity and on the collaboration that occurs naturally in an office environment. Bell blamed what he described as the supervisory mind-set. People “have probably worked their tails off to become a manager, and once they become a manager, to tell them that their employees are going to be working from home, they say ‘Wait a minute, I’m now a manager I want to be able to see, touch, control and manage the people who work for me,’ ” he said.
The solution is to stop focusing on employees’ conduct and focus instead on measuring their output and performance. “Production-line metrics are obsolete,” he said. “Telework isn’t about inputs. It’s about outcomes. It’s about results.”
The Trademark Division long ago recognized the value of performance metrics in telework programs. For the Patent and Trademark divisions, performance metrics were relatively easy because they are built into patent and trademark claims processing procedures. “I’d say it’s probably No. 1 on the list” of priorities, Cohn said.
In addition to performance metrics, senior-level support is an essential component of any successful telework program. TIGTA, for example, sought senior executive members when it formed a committee to develop an operations concept for telework. The committee needed to have executive representation and an appreciation for work practices in a nontraditional office environment, Trapp said. TIGTA officials found that tracking employee activities via logging is essential.
Training helps speed managers’ acceptance of a decentralized work environment. “We have a training program specifically for managers,” Meadows said. Under a program started this year with 300 patent officers, managers undergo a three-hour training program on how to manage employees who work remotely. “We need to make sure our managers are well-trained and understand real — and perceived — challenges that come with managing people in a telework environment,” he said.
Other agencies are establishing new programs to help managers cope with telework. The Defense Information Systems Agency, for example, is creating a new performance management system, which will go into effect Oct. 1.
Bell, who lives in a golf community in South Carolina, has been a teleworker for the past nine years. He is accustomed to being closely monitored. His bosses can readily gain access to his e-mail messages and contact database. “In some respects, I’m more transparent now than I was back in my [cubicle] days,” he said.