Why telework is in an agency's best interest

Teleworking is moving beyond just letting agency employees work from home; it's becoming a key element in continuity-of-operations planning, efforts to reduce pollution, and plans to save billions on unneeded real estate.

Justin Johnson, deputy chief of staff at the Office of Personnel Management, acknowledged that a fear of performance management inhibited government teleworking.

When snowstorms closed down Atlanta for three days last winter, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, located in the city, stayed on the job, averaging 6,000 concurrent users logged on to its network during the shutdown.

“Many of us were able to work without interruption,” said Allison Tanner, executive officer in CDC’s Office of the Chief Operating Officer and the agency’s telework lead. “We couldn’t have done that three years ago, before the implementation of the telework program and the practice of teleworking every day.”

CDC’s experience reflected the common theme at the Spring Telework Exchange Town Hall meeting April 28 in Washington, which was not compliance with the Telework Enhancement Act but using workplace flexibility to improve efficiencies.


Related coverage:

Telework success tip: One step at a time

Telework on the sly: How many feds really work outside the office?


“It’s an issue whose time has come,” said Sara Manzano-Diaz, director of the Labor Department’s Women’s Bureau.

Agencies that have implemented telework programs, either in pilot programs or in wide scale, are reporting improved productivity and morale. Requirements for traditional office space are being cut at the Patent and Trademark Office and CDC, and continuity of operations is becoming easier to maintain during disruptions.

The Telework Enhancement Act requires agencies to have updated policies in place this year to allow employees to work outside the traditional workplace. But the emerging drivers for telework are a variety of government initiatives and mandates to improve efficiency, cut costs and reduce carbon emissions.

The success stories came with caveats, however. Numbers show management is still resistant. An attendee at the conference summed up the management attitude at one department as: “If I can’t see you, you’re not working.”

“Telework is not for everyone,” Manzano-Diaz said; some people must be in the workplace to do their jobs.

But more than 80 percent of government workers are expected to be eligible for teleworking, and surveys have shown that 97 percent of workers would telework if allowed, said Stephen W.T. O’Keefe, executive director of the Telework Exchange. Yet only about 10 percent of federal workers are now teleworking.

Since passage of the Telework Enhancement Act, however, “We’ve seen a real shift in management attitudes toward,” telework, O’Keefe said. “Management attitude is improving.”

“We’re behind the private sector, and we realize that,” he said. “It is incumbent on us to show our results.”

Toward that end, OPM is launching a pilot program with 400 employees in Washington and in the Boyers, Pa., field office using Results Only Work Environment (ROWE, a branded management program owned by CultureRx). The premise of ROWE is that it does not matter when or where work gets done as long as it gets done. Some of those participating in the pilot program cannot telework, Johnson said, but they can still have flexible schedules.

The pilot program was announced last year during the White House forum on workplace flexibility and, if successful, the agency plans to expand it vigorously within OPM and use it as a model for other agencies.

The program began in July after three months of training and preparation, and was first scheduled to wind up by the end of 2010, with a final report due from Deloitte in February 2011. But Johnson said officials decided to extend the program through the end of fiscal 2011 and that a final report will be completed by the end of the calendar year.

Telework also was cited in a presidential memorandum issued last June on Disposing of Unneeded Federal Real Estate. The memo calls on agencies to accelerate efforts to identify and eliminate excess real estate and to make better use of remaining property. The program is expected to save as much as $3 billion through 2012. Telework, with employees working remotely outside traditional offices, is expected help to reduce the need for office space.

Kevin Kampschroer, director of the General Services Administration’s office of Federal High-Performance Green Buildings, said $1.7 billion in savings already had been identified.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has saved $18 million in real estate costs through having 6,000 employees working outside the office at least some of each week. At CDC, workers who sign telework agreements also agree to share space when in the office, cutting the need for traditional, assigned office space.

“We spend millions of dollars a year on space, and we never seem to have enough,” Tanner said.

A program to provide encrypted laptops to teleworkers has been expanded to replace traditional desktop PCs with laptops, she said.

“Over time we are going to see some cost savings from this,” along with reorganizing office space, she said. “These kinds of things take a little time before you achieve savings, but we’re well on our way.”

 

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