Spohn:The case for telework

he congressional threat of $5 million in penalties may be enough to motivate some federal agencies to begin implementing telework policies. However, what agencies may really need is direction on how to make it work.

In addition to the challenges chief information officers will face if their agencies are forced to comply with the 2001 law that requires executive agencies to enable all eligible employees to telework by next year, many managers simply do not trust their employees to work from home. They need more compelling reasons to implement such programs.

A sound telework policy for the government is about more than flexible hours and pollution reduction. When Congress or an agency shuts down because of an anthrax scare, a snowstorm or a hurricane, thousands of key employees go home without a consistent means of accessing their networks and e-mail. So there are three reasons to establish an aggressive telework program: continuity of operations, disaster recovery and emergency communications.

When properly deployed, a telework network acts not only as a means for employees to work from home but as a redundant network, an emergency communications system and a resource to keep key employees consistently engaged during a crisis.

Telework has also proven to be one of the fastest-growing trends in the country. In the private sector, the economic benefits are clear. AT&T officials estimate that they save $65 million annually through increased productivity and $25 million in office space.

Growth rates in government are even higher, nearly doubling since 2001. Yet, only 6 percent of government employees telework and, of those, about 75 percent use antiquated dial-up access. If the government does not come up with a sound telework policy, it risks losing talent to the flexibility offered by the private sector.

The reasons for enabling employees to telework are clear, but federal CIOs' challenges in implementing such plans are daunting. Among the barriers to telework, according to a May 2004 Office of Personnel Management survey: funding; performance issues associated with at-home network connections; lack of broadband (high-speed) access for geographically dispersed employees; prohibitive administrative costs and challenges; and equipment performance, compatibility and IT support for such large programs.

In short, to be effective and efficient, a telework program must let employees perform the same functions remotely that they can in the office. The program must be streamlined, consistent, affordable and available everywhere.

One of the most viable connectivity options out there is also one of the most proven and most overlooked — satellite. Recent developments in the satellite sector make implementation of a satellite teleworking solution more viable, available and affordable, addressing the challenges facing federal CIOs.

Teleworking policy and implementation are crucial to addressing some of our nation's top homeland security issues — including emergency communications and keeping critical employees engaged during a crisis. If Congress can offer the right reasons and incentives, satellite technology can provide the right solution.

Spohn is assistant vice president of government services for Hughes Network Systems, which provides satellite services.

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