COMMENTARY

When telework really isn't

GSA's closure of telework centers raises a question

Paul Cantwell is vice president of federal sales at LifeSize Communications Inc.

The news that the General Services Administration is closing a dozen regional government telework centers raises an interesting point. The 2010 Telework Enhancement Act, which President Barack Obama signed last December, requires government agencies to look at how telework implementation may function in their operations.

One item in particular to consider is whether the network of regional telework centers GSA created is the best way to ensure that the greatest number of federal employees can deliver the full benefit of this initiative to taxpayers. The Telework Enhancement Act does not provide funding for the centers, and instead encourages federal employees to work from home.

Under the legislation, by early June agencies must have a policy on employees working outside of the office, identify eligible employees and inform them of the option. In addition, government agencies will have to appoint a telework program manager and create policies and plans for continuity of operations during natural disasters or other emergencies.

Telework is already in place in the federal government. Some agencies, notably the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), are vocal supporters of the practice’s improvements in performance and quality of life for employees. The USPTO started telework programs more than 13 years ago, and now has more than 5,000 employees working from home at least one day per week. The agency is considered a model for telework in the federal government.

The PTO’s success with telework only underscores the irony of GSA’s “telework centers”: If you have to drive to a telework center, you’re not teleworking. You simply have a different commute.

That irony does not seem to be lost on the federal employees already eligible for telework.

One survey at www.telework.gov, the official website of the Federal Government's telework program, polled executive agencies on their opinions of the value of telework. Although most responding agencies were generally in favor of GSA’s telework centers, many of those opposed cited employee inconvenience as the main reason not to use the centers. Fifty-five percent cited cost as the main reason for not using telework centers.

In almost all of these cases, according to telework.gov, “teleworking employees preferred to work from home instead of a remote location.”

The fact is that telework must be fully embraced by the federal government if U.S. taxpayers and public servants are going to benefit. Telework centers are an interim measure – a way for government to maintain secure lines of communication with employees requiring restricted information.

In the broadest sense, telework simply can’t work that way in the long term, and doesn’t have to now, either. High definition video collaboration technology is not out of reach for individual desktops, even in the home.

What’s more, it’s simply a misperception that home teleworking employees cannot have the same level of security as they might in telework centers. Government agencies and the military use specially designed algorithms and hardware to provide certified, government-grade encryption for high levels of security to disseminate classified communication. Providers of communication and conferencing technologies should be able to operate with encryption without losing quality.

With the graying of the current federal workforce, attracting the best young minds for the public sector will require incentives they are already used to having. Tomorrow’s leaders have an expectation that they can work anywhere, anytime. They won’t be swayed with the promise of a different commute, when they know what’s already possible for true teleworking capability in their own home.

About the Author

Paul Cantwell is vice president of federal sales at Lifesize Communications Inc.

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