Telework success comes from linking it to larger goals

Telework is expanding rapidly at the Agriculture Department in part because management has linked it to initiatives for the agency’s cultural transformation, modernization and efficiency, according to a senior USDA official.

“One of the key components of cultural transformation is telework,” Oscar Gonzalez Jr., deputy assistant secretary for administration at USDA, said at the Telework Exchange Town Hall Meeting on May 2.  

Especially in times of fiscal austerity, federal agencies must look at a wide variety of options--including telework strategies--to carry out their missions, become more efficient and improve services, he said.

“We have no choice but to rethink how we do things,” Gonzalez said. “I think, in government, everything is on the table.”

Telework also is a very practical solution for tens of thousands of the USDA’s field workers—including plant, animal, soil and environmental inspectors, specialists and scientists—many of whom are based in rural areas and must travel to various locations as part of their jobs, he added.

Some of that travel can be reduced by allowing the workers to work at home or at remote locations. In 2011, the department saved $2 million on transit subsidies due to improved telework forecasts, Gonzalez said.

Currently, about 22 percent of the eligible workers in the USDA workforce telework at least one day during each two-week pay period. About 76 percent of the department’s 95,000-member workforce is eligible for telework.

About 7,500 USDA workers pledged to telework at least one day during Telework Week in March 2012, up from 600 during the same event a year ago.

The department has set a telework participation goal of 45 percent, said Mika Cross, telework manager for the USDA. She said the agency was gaining an additional 1 percent to 3 percent teleworkers each month.

Gonzalez, who was born and raised in east Los Angeles and began his community work there, said he has seen benefits to agencies in retaining and recruiting key workers through telework.

He told of a USDA employee who teleworked for several weeks while tending to his ailing mother in another state, until she passed away. Reflecting on the employee’s job performance during that period, he said the worker was a “top performer” who might have left the agency had he not been permitted to telework.

Gonzalez also noted that young people, schools and communities benefit from the flexibility in work hours and reductions in commuting time achieved through telework. Workers have more time to volunteer as coaches, tutors and school aides if they have less commuting time.

“In Los Angeles, you drive an hour to a meeting, and an hour home,” Gonzalez said. “That is 10 hours a week in traffic” that could have gone toward supporting family and community needs, he said.

The Town Hall meeting is sponsored semi-annually by the Telework Exchange, a public-private partnership advancing telework in the workplace and in federal government. The organization also sponsors the annual Telework Week in March, in which workers pledge to work remotely.

This year, more than 71,000 workers pledged to telework during Telework Week, an 80 percent increase from a year ago, said Stephen O’Keeffe, executive director of the Telework Exchange. Nearly all the pledges were from federal employees.

If all of the federal employees eligible to telework would do so two days a week for a year, the savings to taxpayers would total $5 billion a year, O’Keeffe said.

“That is ‘b’ for billion,” O’Keeffe said. “That buys a lot of hamburgers.”

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