Earthquake: Another missed opportunity for telework?

The earthquake on Aug. 23 might not have done a lot of physical damage around the Washington, D.C., metro area, but it cost the federal government more than it should have in terms of employee productivity, one expert said.

Federal officials moved quickly in reaction to the magnitude 5.8 earthquake, which occurred at 1:51 p.m., and was centered in central Virginia. Offices in Washington, D.C., were evacuated and other buildings, like the White House, Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol, were temporarily closed. The Pentagon was reopened to employees in half an hour. The others soon reopened.

In light of what happened, many federal employees opted to go home for the rest of the day, and agencies may have lost a half of a day’s work, said Josh Sawislak, a senior fellow at the Telework Exchange, a public-private partnership that studies the workforce issue.

Related stories:

What telework will look like in 10 years

Social media travels faster than seismic waves

Sawislak was at the Washington Convention Center downtown at a conference on telework when the shaking began. Soon, “people came screaming out of ballroom,” he said.

As things settled down though, those employees who returned to the office were likely telling their stories about the quake to their co-workers, with little work getting done.

It would have been different for teleworkers. The earthquake might have taken a few minutes for cleanup. At his home, Sawislak said a few pictures fell off the walls. When he got home after a congested hour-long commute out of Washington, the cleanup took about 20 minutes.

Teleworkers wouldn’t have gone through congested commute or the slowed Metro system. They would have done a few minutes of story-telling, and returned to work, Sawislak said.

In a strange way, the problems with traffic and public transportation might prove to be a blessing, helping officials get focused on the process for evacuations.

Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, called the earthquake a "spontaneous evacuation" that no one could have predicted, unlike Hurricane Irene that was coming up the East Coast.

The earthquake was "a live-fire test," Sawislak said.

“What you don’t get with a drill is the reality factor,” he said. During a drill, “people don’t come running out of a building.”

The quake did its damage though. The General Services Administration’s Public Building Service has closed 13 federal buildings early on Aug. 24. Some are closed pending further inspections.

The Office of Personnel Management has been issuing updates on building status and work plans. Officials said on Aug. 24 that changes are happening quickly as buildings are inspected and reopened across the federal government.

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

The 2015 Federal 100

Meet 100 women and men who are doing great things in federal IT.


  • Shutterstock image (by venimo): e-learning concept image, digital content and online webinar icons.

    Can MOOCs make the grade for federal training?

    Massive open online courses can offer specialized IT instruction on a flexible schedule and on the cheap. That may not always mesh with government's preference for structure and certification, however.

  • Shutterstock image (by edel): graduation cap and diploma.

    Cybersecurity: 6 schools with the right stuff

    The federal government craves more cybersecurity professionals. These six schools are helping meet that demand.

  • Rick Holgate

    Holgate to depart ATF

    Former ACT president will take a job with Gartner, follow his spouse to Vienna, Austria.

  • Are VA techies slacking off on Yammer?

    A new IG report cites security and productivity concerns associated with employees' use of the popular online collaboration tool.

  • Shutterstock image: digital fingerprint, cyber crime.

    Exclusive: The OPM breach details you haven't seen

    An official timeline of the Office of Personnel Management breach obtained by FCW pinpoints the hackers’ calibrated extraction of data, and the government's step-by-step response.

  • Stephen Warren

    Deputy CIO Warren exits VA

    The onetime acting CIO at Veterans Affairs will be taking over CIO duties at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

  • Shutterstock image: monitoring factors of healthcare.

    DOD awards massive health records contract

    Leidos, Accenture and Cerner pull off an unexpected win of the multi-billion-dollar Defense Healthcare Management System Modernization contract, beating out the presumptive health-records leader.

  • Sweating the OPM data breach -- Illustration by Dragutin Cvijanovic

    Sweating the stolen data

    Millions of background-check records were compromised, OPM now says. Here's the jaw-dropping range of personal data that was exposed.

  • FCW magazine

    Let's talk about Alliant 2

    The General Services Administration is going to great lengths to gather feedback on its IT services GWAC. Will it make for a better acquisition vehicle?

Reader comments

Fri, Sep 9, 2011 Margaret Virginia

Sure IF more people were teleworking they might have been able to get back to work faster. And IF I lived in Hawaii I could snorkel on my lunch break. And IF I won the lottery I wouldn't have to work. Key word being IF. You can put any combination of events and outcomes together with the word IF, but it doesn't make you insightful. But it might get your article clicked on a couple more times since you used the words "earthquake" and "telework" in the title.

Mon, Aug 29, 2011

I telework on Mondays. This article is not considering the real world of teleworking in which most federal employees don't telework 100% of the time. I went home after the earthquake because common sense tells me that no one can determine a building is safe 30 minutes after a quake! We do need to improve emergency evacuation transportation because it took me 4 hours to get home when it normally takes 45 minutes.

Fri, Aug 26, 2011


Fri, Aug 26, 2011

Federal Workers are not machines they are people just like you and me. This earthquake came unexpected and many people where not prepared to deal with that. I causes emotional and mental upset and trauma in some cases.It is unfair to judge the federal workforce based on that afternoon.I would like to see the writer in this situation and see how he would react with no phone service to check on loved ones or catch a ride home, no bus service, no metro or train service. and by the way we did not have knowledge if the buildings where safe to go back into, the structual engineer did not show up until wednesday to approve the safety of that building.I took a risk and went into the building to get my computer and stuff and was hoping that the building would not collapse in the meantime. It appeares that the writer don't have a humansoul and compassion.......May God Bless You

Fri, Aug 26, 2011

i have to laugh... intially and almost immediately after the earthquake, we were told our building was not being evacuated because "all systems are operational". what IDIOT decides that because the lights didn't go out, that was good reason not to evacuate a building AFTER AN EARTHQUAKE!!! people are going to use their instincts and leave a building after such an event and that's exactly what happened. you cannot possibly assess no significant structural damage occurred becasue the lights stayed on...JESUS!! this isn't california. buildings here are not constructed with earthquakes in mind. and as for teleworking after the quake? good luck with that... even if i were at home, the last thing i'm going to think about is working after experiencing such an event.

Show All 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