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