GAO report: Flexiplace participation still lacking

Although official government policy permits federal employees to make "flexible work arrangements" whenever feasible government managers may be hindering this effort.

In January 1993 the Office of Personnel Management and the General Services Administration issued a report about a pilot program that allowed employees to work at home. It concluded that "Flexiplace " or telecommuting provided significant benefits to participants worked well with employees who were proven performers and was ready for governmentwide implementation.

OPM and GSA have assumed lead roles in promoting Flexiplace. OPM provides guidance on how to start Flexiplace and distributes the results of its research on Flexiplace. GSA manages and markets federal telecenters.

To ensure Flexiplace's success an interagency group was formed as part of the National Telecommuting Initiative Action Plan in January 1996. A goal of the plan is to increase the number of federal Flexiplace participants to 60 000 by the end of fiscal 1998. This corresponds to about 3 percent of the federal civilian work force a percentage roughly equivalent to estimates of telecommuting in the private sector.

With all this going for the program you would expect Flexiplace to be a roaring success. Unfortunately according to a General Accounting Office report that is not the case.

Only about half of the nearly 99 100 employees at the 26 sites GAO studied were covered by formal Flexiplace policies. However because of limitations within these policies about 28 000 employees covered by Flexiplace policies were excluded from participation.

Limitations often restricted participation to only the medically disabled or members of a certain occupation. Allowing medically disabled employees to participate in the Flexiplace program is understandable but what about the rest of the work force?

In addition GAO found that managers at five locations permitted employees to take advantage of Flexiplace although the managers had not formally set Flexiplace policies. Sounds as if in some cases formal policies aren't working but informal practices are. Not surprising if you've been a fed for a while.

A survey completed in July 1996 by the President's Management Council estimated that 9 000 employees telecommute. Not exactly a mob scene. But GAO found only about 4 700 or nearly 5 percent of the employees it surveyed participated in Flexiplace.

What's to blame? Management resistance is the greatest barrier according to agency officials and union representatives. They reported that many managers had to see their employees to believe they were working as opposed to managing by results. I've seen many managers watch their employees not work so what is their problem with Flexiplace?

Another reason cited was that employees working at home feel isolated. When you are accustomed to going to an office each day and interacting with your colleagues on a regular basis it's quite a jolt to your equilibrium to suddenly be working by yourself.

Agency officials and union representatives also said some jobs do not lend themselves to Flexiplace arrangements and they cited other barriers such as a lack of computers at alternative work sites access to sensitive data and the fact that some employees believed Flexiplace could be career-limiting.

Of those employees who did telecommute agency officials told GAO that employees reported an increase in their productivity and morale and a decrease in commuting time interruptions sick leave use and personal costs. Some agency officials said that Flexiplace resulted in a decreased need for office space an increased ability to recruit and retain employees a lesser impact on the environmental and greater opportunities for disabled employees.

The best Flexiplace participants were disciplined self-starters who needed little supervision agency officials said. But how many of those will you find in a typical workplace? Self-starters often go into business for themselves because they don't like to work for others. This is not intended to malign workers but there is a difference between employees and entrepreneurs.

The bottom line: Flexiplace is not for everyone and federal managers want employees where they can see them - even if they're watching them not work. Because GAO interviewed agency officials responsible for the Flexiplace program but not line management the assertion that government managers are the greatest obstacle to increased implementation of Flexiplace should be taken with a grain of salt.

-- Bureaucratus is a retired federal employee who contributes regularly to Federal Computer Week.

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