Telework: From "What if…" to "What now?"

Snowpocalypse 2009 crystallized the difficulties that must be addressed before telework becomes a standard practice at federal agencies

For federal employees who have been agitating for years for the right to work part time from home…

For lawmakers who have been cajoling agencies to develop telework plans in the event of a national emergency…

For personnel management officials who've been working with agency managers to develop sound telecommuting policies…

For just about everyone living in the Washington metropolitan area, February’s Snowmageddon was a monumental call to…do something!

In theory, the latest generation of networking and mobile technology makes it possible for many federal employees to work in any place where an Internet connection is available. True, government was closed for nearly a week, but as often is the case, work must go on. For example, that was the case for private contractors who stayed on the job and connected.

For federal employees, it was not so simple. Many readers commenting on the blizzard of weather-related stories across the Web were outraged all over again at how federal agencies did not have the technology, policies or management strategies in place to keep feds online and productive.

If nothing else, the Snowpocalypse served to crystallize the difficulties that must be addressed before telework becomes a standard practice at federal agencies.

1. Blame the managers

Management that is skittish about working remotely remains a problem, and the blizzard experience demonstrated some of the forms it can take.

One FCW reader wrote that Environmental Protection Agency offices have all their employees signed up in their telework plans so that it looks like the agency offers a great deal of flexibility. But in fact, the reader went on, "it is more than strongly discouraged by management, and it more likely than not is denied on a regular basis. Even doing it on a periodic basis is hard to get approval for. EPA should be leaders in telework since it is supposed to be beneficial for the environment [and] save [the] government energy and infrastructure costs."

“Places like [the Homeland Security Department and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services] say they have telework [policies] on the books, but in all reality, they don't promote it or allow employees to use it,” wrote Chuck in Rockville, Md., commenting on one of our articles. “I find it a battle that the employee will never win because the upper management has control issues.”

“If the government really treated us like salaried professionals, most employees would respond as salaried professionals and contribute work from home on snow days,” another reader wrote. “However, my experience in my agency is that if an employee needs to leave early to pick up a sick child from school or if they have a sick child at home, telework is forbidden; the employee is forced to take leave. The government cannot demand that employees act like salaried professionals when it is to the government's advantage and then treat people like low-skilled hourly workers if it is to the employee's advantage. It needs to be a two-way street, but it is not in most agencies.”

2. What's fair about that?

Some government employees complained that they were expected to telework while others in equally important jobs got days off. And some contractors, for whom work went on through the blizzard, wondered why their federal counterparts felt free to unplug and stop working.

"Each snow day costs the federal government $100 million — possibly more during this blizzard, because I’m sure some feds will just take the rest of the week off and give themselves a 'snowcation,'" wrote Gregg Carlstrom on the FedLine blog at Federal Times. "But many telecommuters are expected to work today, according to OPM — even though their physical-commuting colleagues are not."

"I telework regularly, no problems," an anonymous FCW reader wrote. "My problem with the snowed-out folks was that my cohorts *didn't even try*. They don't telework now, and when they heard 'snow day,' left skid marks in the parking lot and never looked back. The real problem here is the sense that once out of the office, all responsibility ends (and I'm talking our management, too!)." 

On days when many federal employees were told to stay home and telework, employees at Walter Reed Army Medical Center were told to report to work on time. According to one commenter, hospital officials posted a notice reading "Walter Reed Army Medical Center (HOSPITAL) WILL OPEN ON TIME AND UNDER NORMAL OPERATING CONDITIONS on Friday, 12 February 2010 with all services provided. All staff are expected to report at their normal time. Employees who are unable to make it to work need to contact their supervisor. All parking areas will be open and all shuttles will be running on the normal schedule."

3. Unforeseen foreseeable glitches

Although some people had experience with telework arrangements when the snows hit, others were trying it for the first time. Some of that latter group ran into problems that could have been solved in advance.

"The biggest lesson on telework was that those who do it regularly did fine during the big shutdown, but those who don't tended to have problems with the configuration of their setup at home," said Jon Eisenberg, a manager at the National Academies, a nonprofit organization that provides scientific advice to agencies. "There are many things that can go wrong, from routers that block [virtual private network] connections to key software missing on computers. For those who regularly connect remotely, these problems have been resolved. But for those who connect rarely, these problems weren't solved and were show-stoppers. Worse, with the closure, normal help-desk service wasn't available to fix the problems."

Working from home during a major event brings its own set of problems. While they're trying to work, grown-ups are also dealing with children who are out of school, shoveling out their cars and protecting their houses. "Telework isn't a panacea when the day care is closed or the nanny is snowed out," wrote Helen Mosher, social media strategist at AFCEA International, on Twitter.

On GovLoop, a social networking site devoted to feds, discussions sprang up highlighting the importance of progressive agency policies that take advantage of telework.

David Dejewski, a member of the leadership team at the Defense Department's Business Transformation Agency, wrote that he has experience with telework and that working remotely during the storms was not much different from doing so on any other day. "I found very little change to my routine with two exceptions: 1. VPN loads have increased with additional teleworkers, stressing the system and causing burps. 2. A shoulder injury sustained while shoveling tons of snow [made] it hard to work the computer as before."

Even if an agency has been proactive in establishing telework policies, some employees are not equipped to work outside the office. Those employees face "skeleton help desks, residual reluctance to adopt [telework] technologies and limited exposure to this venue. Several 'little things' in the configuration are stumbling blocks for those who are navigating telework for the first time."

4. Policy potholes

An FCW reader suggested that inflexible rules hinder employees who are trying to stay on the job.

"Teleworking works both ways," the reader said. "I am only allowed to telework one day per week. If bad weather forces the office to be closed and it's not my telework day, then I'm off that day. If you want me to telework whenever the weather is bad, then allow more than one day per week when the weather is good."

"It is very old school not to allow teleworking," another commenter wrote. "If one of the metrics for measuring the performance of an employee is desktime, it is time to get some new management. Even agencies that supposedly support it do so very grudgingly — like six months of negotiations to get maybe one day a week for telework. And then they make it seem like they are doing you a favor."

"Many managers will only approve telework for the poorest candidates so they can point to these failures as proof that telework is a bad idea," another commenter wrote. "Currently, many managers base their telework policy on old rumors of lazy employees. They want to keep an eye on everyone, and any change in the old 'push, push, push' management technique is dismissed without consideration."

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