How to get telework right
3 telework managers discuss how they’ve overcome some of their big problems
After a decade of government mandates, technological strides, and well-intended work life programs, telework programs are still inconsistently applied through the federal government.
However, the overall number of teleworkers fell to 94,643 from 110,592 during that time, which means that less than 8 percent of eligible federal employees regularly take advantage of the option.
Now, with new calls from the Obama administration to expand telework and the specter of a swine flu outbreak that could close government offices when the next flu season hits, some agencies are taking a fresh look at the idea.
To find out what works with new telework programs — along with the biggest remaining stumbling blocks — Federal Computer Week convened a virtual roundtable with three telework program managers who run some of the most successful programs in government. Contributing Editor Alan Joch served as moderator.
Danette Campbell from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Johari Rashad from the Environmental Protection Agency, and Marge Higgins from the General Services Administration shared their experiences.
Question: Although there’s been a governmentwide telework push for a number of years, OPM’s latest report to Congress released last fall showed mixed results — and some steep declines — when it comes to greater adoption rates across the government. What’s holding telework back?
Rashad: From my perspective, managers who don't know how to or who are afraid of managing virtual employees are the biggest obstacles to telework.
Campbell: There could be one or several reasons why an agency has not moved forward with a substantive telework initiative. An agency may be experiencing some resistance from managers who are not completely comfortable with the idea of managing remote workers. In addition, the agency could be struggling with determining eligibility, developing a strong telework policy, determining a business model for their telework program, and providing training for teleworkers and managers.
Another issue agencies may be experiencing might involve performance measures that are not clearly defined. It is critical that agencies have clearly defined performance measures in place before a telework initiative is developed.
Question: In terms of your own agencies, what have been the biggest cultural challenges you’ve had to address with telework?
Campbell: When we started in 1997, telework was not as mainstream an idea as it is now. As a result, the office met two major challenges: getting buy-in from management, midlevel managers and its customers, and solving technology and connectivity issues.
Rashad: The largest cultural issues in telework in EPA in my experience are lack of management support for telework; concern that teleworking employees aren't working when they're at their alternate work location; and concern about managing virtual employees.
Higgins: GSA's experience in implementing telework has mirrored other agencies' in many ways. Although we have a long history of using the tool to accomplish the work of the agency, there have been a variety of employee and manager responses to the use of telework. In 2007, GSA's administrator announced a "Telework Challenge," aimed at increasing participation across the agency and making GSA a model for other agencies. That challenge established specific participation goals over a three-year period and was followed up by a number of important actions. First, top-level support for telework participation was clear in the issuance of the challenge. That support was further demonstrated by inclusion of telework in the performance plans of agency leaders and by the establishment of a "Telework Champion," who worked with individual leaders on telework issues.
The agency then undertook the first across-the-board eligibility review, based on criteria established through OPM's annual call for telework participation data. The agency developed an enhanced telework policy that incorporates HR and IT issues and simplified the start-up process by implementing a single-page (front and back) GSA Telework Agreement form. Bringing together HR and IT experts within the agency to develop this policy was an important component of assuring that this new policy addressed issues vital to successful telework implementation.
GSA has developed online training for employees and managers, modeled on OPM training but incorporating specific GSA policy-related issues. The agency has also developed classroom training for managers and employees that addresses specific local issues surrounding telework implementation. We tracked and published participation on a monthly basis for much of calendar year 2008 and achieved 43 percent participation of eligible employees at the end of 2008. We have now moved to a six-month tracking plan and are currently completing that data call.
Question: What have been the biggest technical stumbling blocks?
Rashad: The biggest technical challenge is that our current policy [implemented in 1997] does not require the agency to provide equipment for teleworkers. This may have been because of cost and security concerns. So actually, teleworkers have been providing free equipment use to the agency because they're using their own equipment. Furthermore, EPA is not required to install, maintain, or repair any equipment that does not belong to the agency. Some employees probably didn't telework because they either didn't have computers at home or did not want to use their personal equipment for agency work. This will change now that [EPA’s Customer Technology Solutions IT standardization and modernization program] is being implemented and employees now have dockable laptops.
A second technology challenge is providing access to the EPA [network]. Currently, the system we use requires a Token Ring [interface] that costs approximately $100 per employee per month. Providing that access for employees who only telework on a minimal basis would be very costly. Employees are able to access the last 10 days of their e-mail through our Web mail system while teleworking, without having Token Ring.
Campbell: In the beginning, I think the downside was having the ability to connect well with the office and to access databases from a remote location in an efficient manner. Technology was the biggest obstacle at first. Now technology has improved, and we don’t have the same problems.
Security, bandwidth, and training issues are challenges for any agency starting or expanding a telework program. USPTO has to move massive patent application and trademark agreement documents back and forth online continuously, which means it must be able to do so in a very secure, error-free environment.
USPTO has spent a good deal of time devising ways to encrypt all the data on which people work in an online environment. It has also gone to great lengths to be certain no critical data is stored permanently on USPTO-issued employee laptops, so information is stored on a USPTO server, not on the laptop itself.
Because of the size of the documents with which both the patent examiners and trademark attorneys work, USPTO could never operate in a dial-up environment, for example. Our patent and trademark remote workers need large bandwidth to move information, and the agency has built the necessary IT infrastructure to support the operations.
Comprehensive training is key to effective implementation of telework programs. USPTO requires every teleworker to get non-IT and technology training before they are deployed to work from home. Within USPTO, both trademarks and patents have their own telework training programs. In the case of patents, the patent examiners go to a six-day intermittent training program. This group trains managers of teleworkers as well.
Familiarity with telework practices and technology — and seeing telework practices in action — can turn even reluctant managers into telework supporters. The training heightens manager awareness of the need to successfully communicate, not only in a virtual environment but in the brick-and-mortar environment as well.
Question: Have these and other challenges led you to make policy changes?
Rashad: My biggest policy challenges involve inappropriate approvals of telework agreements. That is, managers approving agreements that are outside the bounds of EPA policy. The current policy contains a lot of ambiguous language, which encourages creative interpretations of the policy by managers and employees. Another issue is that managers and employees don't consult their regional/program office Flexiplace Coordinators — or me! [Flexiplace is EPA’s telework program.] If any employee or manager has a question or concern about the policy, there are people in place to answer questions and provide guidance, but we are often overlooked until a sticky situation occurs. We have a Flexiplace intranet page that contains links to all of the EPA policies and forms, to OPM/GSA's online telework training, to additional Flexiplace guidance, and to the list of EPA Flexiplace Coordinators. I love it when managers and employees call to ask for policy interpretation; I just wish they did it more often, and before an issue arises, rather than after.
Campbell: At the USPTO, we have an enterprisewide telework policy that addresses purpose, background, definitions, scope, policy, responsibilities, authorities, training, equipment, files, records, and documents. This document is what guides our business unit telework guidelines, which are designed and developed based on business unit needs.
This year, we faced the challenge of providing a secure, reliable remote access solution to those that work remotely a limited amount of time and/or whose business unit did not have the funds to purchase the initial hardware and incur the costs associated with the enterprise equipment we have deployed in the past (Enterprise Remote Access-ERA Laptop). We addressed this challenge by creating the "ERA Portal." As we have done with all of our telework programs, we conducted structured pilots with an appropriate cross-section of customers before deploying the final product to customers.
The agency’s dedication to following standard ERA policies, processes and procedures to meet the IT needs of telework/remote access users has allowed us to accommodate the 6,000-plus users who rely on ERA for working remotely. In addition, the agency’s commitment to providing quality IT training and non-IT training has positioned our teleworkers for success when working remotely.
Question: Please talk about how you see your agency’s telework strategies evolving in the coming year. Will you push for greater participation? Do you plan to initiate any new policies or technologies? How if at all are warnings about a possible swine flu outbreak in the year ahead impacting your programs?
Rashad: I expect that EPA will support increased employee participation in telework in the coming year. We have been working to revise our current Flexiplace [telework] policy and have gone through several drafts. Now that were are providing employees with dockable laptops to replace old PCs, I would expect that more employees would be interested in teleworking.
During the start of the Swine Flu outbreak earlier this year, EPA held briefings for managers that addressed telework during a pandemic health crisis. Managers were encouraged to ensure that employees who were eligible for telework had Flexiplace agreements in place.
Campbell: Our teleworkers are deployed by business units and deployments are based on business unit goals. Some business units have annual telework deployment goals while others may deploy teleworkers on a quarterly basis. The agency envisions continued growth in the area of telework.
Our office of the chief information officer has just recently developed a new [ERA Portal] for deploying remote workers. This allows business units to deploy teleworkers without incurring the expense associated with providing equipment for teleworkers. With the ERA Portal teleworkers can use their own equipment when teleworking. This solution is primarily used for those employees teleworking one day per week.
The USPTO currently has nearly 5,000 employees who telework between one and four days per week. At present, should a pandemic situation occur, the agency is positioned so that 51 percent of its employees can work from home.