Did telework keep the government functioning after storms?

Friday’s storm -- a massive,  high-wind thunderstorm called a derecho --  swept through the Washington, D.C., area with winds close to 80 mph, uprooting and snapping trees like matchsticks and leaving more than a million homes without power. Monday morning, the Office of Personnel Management announced federal agencies were open with the option for unscheduled leave or unscheduled telework, an announcement that surprised some.

“If this had been five years or even three years ago, the government would have been closed,” noted Josh Sawislak, senior fellow at the Telework Exchange. 

The federal response to the June 29 storms that ravaged most of the East Coast is indeed quite the change from February 2010 when relentless blizzards forced agencies to shutter for a record-breaking five days. The price tag for the closings: roughly $71 million a day, according to OPM Director John Berry’s testimony before a congressional committee. 

Not long after those snows, Berry announced plans to create an unscheduled telework option employees can use when the government remains open during emergency situations. However, it is not yet clear how many employees teleworked, or indeed, how badly the power and communications outages that continued to plague the area by Monday affected those workers who wanted to work from home.

When incidents like this happen, “instead of having a response plan, you need to keep ability,” Sawislak said. “The great thing about telework is that you train and equip people for telework so when you have a situation like this, you can actually work from some other location.”

Employees who don’t want to work from their own homes, or can't due to loss of electricity or Internet connection, should also have the option to continue their tasks at another agency’s building, Sawislak said.

“It gives you that wide flexibility … when people have better space to work from than their office, and that’s really the power of telework,” he said.

Despite the push to telework spurred by the Telework Act of 2010, an April 2012 survey by the Telework Exchange showed that just 21 percent of federal employees are working outside their regular offices at least two times a week, GCN reported. However, the recent years' natural disasters  – ranging from the 2011 earthquake to the recent hurricane-strength storms -- could potentially serve as fresh reminder to why agencies need to push ahead on telework.

The primary thing to remember, Sawislak said, is that telework is a tool that supports continuity, flexibility and efficiency.

“What this situation has proved to us is that giving people that flexibility allows the government to function better in times when it might not be able to,” he said.


 

About the Author

Camille Tuutti is a former FCW staff writer who covered federal oversight and the workforce.

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Reader comments

Tue, Jul 24, 2012 Henri Canada

Telework, and its supporting policies, procedures and support tools, are some of the required corporate enablers to allow the business of Government to continue operating, regardless of the initiating emergency. Whether you use COOP or BCP, if these enablers are not in place, workers and mgmt will not be able to maintain service levels, regardless if these people are critical to the organization or not. Good BCP would have identified and documented these risks, such that when a "bad day" hits your office, people would know what to do, when and where to go (including planned arrangements to work from other Fed agencies' workplaces, if available), and how to do it too, including leveraging telework processes to continue delivering services. If your role is critical to your agency, then your mgmt must provide you with the tools, processes and training to do so...including to "drag a 10+ pound boat anchor...". But if mgmt cannot deliver the data securely to its remote workers, then they must also address that risk to better support your COOP / BCP goals and objectives. This is not complicated stuff to address; you just need to have Senior Mgmt on-board, break down the silos within your agency, and do it!

Mon, Jul 9, 2012 Paul

The COOP option isn't that difficult IF agencies didn't have so many problems with multiple computers. As someone that is supposed to be able to operate during national emergencies, I've always kept a govt issue laptop at home and a desktop at work so I don't have to worry about moving my laptop and the associated security risks. Now I am being forced to go to one computer and like someone else here mentioned, I'm not likely to want to transport my laptop, especially if I'm not going straight home since I won't leave it unsecure in the car.

Thu, Jul 5, 2012 Arlington, VA

While telework would have really helped in the blizzard (for workers without kids), I don't think it was so helpful in this storm. I personally was very happy to come to my air-conditioned office on Monday since my home was still without electricity and was 88 degrees inside! However a colleague did use unscheduled telework because her son's day camp was closed and the relative she got to watch him was not responsible enough to be left alone with him. Had my son's camp been closed, I would have had to bring him to the office with me.

Thu, Jul 5, 2012

How is telework socialism? Many of our jobs can be done from where ever we have a computer, a telephone, internet access and of course electrical power. The capability to telework exist. The main issue is the resistance by upper management and their unwillingness to build the proper policies. Several private companies (e.g. Hewlet Packar) rely heavily on teleworkers. Why not the US government?

Thu, Jul 5, 2012 Erich Darr

Have you tried using your CAC to boot up your laptop at a another agency's site?

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