Telework Enhancement Act: Easing into a new mindset

Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) sponsored the Telework Enhancement Act, which was signed into law last year. The law requires each agency to create telework policies, determine employee eligibility, and provide training programs for teleworkers and managers.

Federal Computer Week contributing writer John Moore asked Sarbanes about the progress agencies are making under the law, what has held back telework in the past and how those obstacles can be overcome.

FCW: Do you have a sense of where agencies stand regarding their telework plans and the June deadline under the Telework Enhancement Act? Are most agencies still working on their plans?

Sarbanes: This process is under way — both at the interagency level, guided by the Office of Personnel Management, and within individual agencies. There are a number of agencies, including the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the Defense Information Systems Agency, that have long-standing, robust telework policies that may satisfy the requirements under the new law. For other agencies, much more work must be done.

My office has continued to work with OPM and the [Obama] administration to ensure that the initial implementation of the Telework Enhancement Act is carried out quickly and effectively.

We're not going to see a culture of telework embraced overnight, and we don't expect that. The goal is to build a commitment to telework over time so everyone is comfortable with it — from the rank-and-file workforce to middle management and agency leadership. The Telework Enhancement Act was designed to try and grow that culture over time.

We're already seeing improvements, and there are some agencies that are ahead of the curve on telework and will serve as good models for other agencies.

FCW: Some say various misconceptions about telework have delayed the launch or extension of agency programs. What do you view as the main misconceptions? How does the act help address them, and could telework training programs play a role?

Sarbanes: As part of the implementation, each agency is responsible for developing a telework policy, addressing how it will make telework available to its workforce, developing training opportunities for teleworkers and for managers. The agency must also appoint a telework managing officer responsible for guiding the telework policy for the agency.

Maybe the biggest thing we have to overcome is perception and culture — the idea that if you can't see an employee, you don't know if they're doing their work. Training for managers will go a long way toward addressing this. This sort of training is critical to implementing telework, but it has the added benefit of helping managers sharpen skills to evaluate performance based on work product and results rather than attaching arbitrary significance to the fact that you can see the person working down the hall.

I also believe that designating a senior-level official responsible for overseeing telework programs — the telework managing officer — will help improve manager buy-in. It makes it more difficult for the preferences of individual managers to dictate agency policy on telework.

The absence of leadership on this issue has contributed to past failures. Telework implementation must start at the top.

About the Author

John Moore is a freelance writer based in Syracuse, N.Y.

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