Telework bill promises to be a big step forward, experts say
Requirements for agencies go further than past efforts
The telework bill approved last week could be the strongest legislation yet in support of federal employees' ability to work remotely, experts say. The Telework Improvements Act of 2010 (H.R. 1722) would expand telecommuting opportunities across the government by requiring agencies to create policies to support eligible employees.
Supporters of the bill note that it provides much-needed guidelines for federal agencies to follow. Cindy Auten, general manager of the Telework Exchange, noted that, prior to H.R. 1722, the only related legislation in place was Public Law 106-346, which states that if an agency's employees are eligible for telework they should be allowed to do so, with the goal of increasing the number of telecommuting staff members over time. However, she said that the law only really provided guidelines without much detail.
The new legislation has more meat to it. Specifically, Auten said that it focuses on requiring managers to understand telework and to establish staff training programs. Under the bill, agencies will have 180 days to determine the eligibility of all staff and to establish policies for eligible employees, allowing them to work remotely for up to 20 percent of their hours per two-week period.
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Michael Corrigan, lead consultant at Suss Consulting, said the bill seems stronger than any previous telework effort in that it requires agencies to take every single employee into account for eligibility. However, he noted that the 180-day period to determine employee eligibility and additional time to approve a plan leaves room for organizations to drag their feet. “An agency that really wants to do this can do all that very efficiently,” he said, adding that there also was room in the language to slow down the process.
H.R. 1722 is also tied into continuity of operations plans. This became a major issue when snowstorms shut down the East Coast last winter, forcing many employees to work from home. Corrigan observed that the bill’s language stated that continuity of operations plans supersede telework plans. “The telework plan has a bunch of bureaucratic hoops you have to go through,” he said.
Corrigan added that the continuity of operations plan does not necessarily require agencies to follow the same steps to implement a telework plan. “If you put something up on the fly in an emergency situation, you don’t have to follow all hurdles that you have to go through in the telework program,” he said.
But Auten contended that the bill establishes telework as a part of agency business continuity plans. Telework has to be a part of an organization’s operating procedures; it can’t be done on the fly, she said. Instead, agencies must use the bill’s guidelines to train and engage with their workforce when they work remotely.
Another feature of H.R. 1722 requires agencies to pay for their telework initiatives out of existing funds. Auten said that federal organizations are using their technology refresh money to enhance the mobility of their personnel by purchasing laptop computers instead of desktops. Once mobile technology is in place, it lends itself to telework, she said.
Corrigan added that the bill lacks any language for cross-agency support for telework and funnels employees into their agency’s system. This approach makes interagency work difficult, he said.
Although there is now more infrastructure in place to support telework in the federal government, Corrigan still sees a reluctance on the part of federal agencies to fully embrace telecommuting. He noted that a wider government approach is perhaps necessary, rather than one focused at the individual agency level.
“It looks like a pretty good opportunity to do things once rather than once at every agency on training, technology and security," he said. "Or to at least have a model in place that agencies can tailor to their needs.”
Metrics are also important, said Warren Suss, head of Suss Consulting. “If this is done right, it will allow the agencies to manage their workforces in a very different way," he said. "In other words, agency managers won’t have to watch an individual sitting at a desk to feel that they’re accomplishing what they need to accomplish, if metrics are designed effectively and measured appropriately.”
If telework can support the direction the government is already taking for measuring activities with meaningful results, it will also aid other efforts, such as energy efficiency and emergency preparedness, and improve some of the core goals for improved government efficiency, Suss said.
H.R. 1722 now goes back to the House for a final vote on the Senate’s changes. Auten does not anticipate any additional delays on the bill, noting that it enjoys wide bipartisan support.