Culture clash

Five years after the federal government began a push to bolster the ranks of its telecommuters, the results are mixed.

First, here's the good news. In the past 18 months, the number of federal teleworkers — those who work from home or from satellite locations — has nearly doubled, growing from 25,000 when Federal Computer Week checked 18 months ago ["Telecommuting hits a road block," March 13, 2000] to about 45,000, according to recent Office of Personnel Management numbers.

That progress is promising, but it clearly falls short of a President's Management Council goal of having 60,000 federal teleworkers (also dubbed telecommuters) by the end of fiscal 1998. And a new law aimed at boosting the number of federal teleworkers has raised the bar even higher.

Wendell Joice, governmentwide telework team leader at the General Services Administration, said, "We're still well below national averages and targets, but thanks to the recent legislation, we can push harder."

The legislation, authored by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), requires agencies to have all eligible and interested employees teleworking at least one day a week by 2004. That has agencies and their managers — some of whom aren't sold on the home office concept — scrambling to comply.

According to recent studies by the General Accounting Office and the Merit Systems Protection Board, federal managers say they could quickly become understaffed if faced with unexpected absences and nontraditional work schedules.

Joice said that hesitant managers, some of whom may even reject teleworking, are not unique to government. "That is one universal issue with the public and private sectors, in the U.S. and internationally. The No. 1 challenge is management adjustment to this whole thing."

In fact, a recent GAO report found that supervisors in private companies also had concerns about telecommuting, ranging from employees' suitability to security and profitability.

Wolf said that many private companies such as AT&T — where more than 55 percent of midlevel managers telecommute — serve as models for federal agencies.

"A lot of companies do it and do it real well," he said. "They have gotten the know-how, started in the right way and generally been very, very successful."

Armed with Wolf's legislation, telework supporters say federal managers must set aside their objections for the good of the workforce.

"We need to retain individuals in this tight labor market," an OPM official said. "It's the government's desire to recruit more Generation X individuals, and they are interested in spending more time with their families. It's more and more a business necessity."

It's an enticing proposition for more senior feds as well. For example, employees in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's Work@Home pilot program indicated that the telework option is a factor in continuing their careers with the agency.

When it comes to telework, managers cite concerns about monitoring employees' performance in remote locations.

Karen Billingslea, a human resources consultant at the Department of Health and Human Services, said that a typical manager's gripe is, "If I can't see the employee, I don't know what they're doing at home."

Melissa Allen, assistant secretary for administration at the Transportation Department, has heard managers fret over the loss of "face-to-face" time. But she said that once managers get used to telework, they "become greater advocates for it."

Allen oversees a staff of 10 people, four of whom tele.commute at least one day a week every two weeks, and another couple who do it on a project-by-project basis. There's also a new mother on her staff who will telework from home full-time until she is ready to come back to the office.

Billingslea telecommutes and has no problem with her manager, who also telecommutes. "A big trust issue permeates the whole subject. It comes with time, but this will work and employees can be trusted, and we can do a good job, so just let us do it."

She works from home a maximum of three days a week. "I get a lot more work done at home because it's quiet there."

Billingslea has been on the front lines in forming HHS' telework culture. She drafted the department's first-ever agencywide policy on the subject, which affects more than 55,000 employees.

Unlike some other federal agencies, HHS did not have an agencywide teleworking policy before October.

In last year's Transportation budget, Wolf added language that calls for a 25 percent increase in eligible teleworkers per year starting in 2001.

"It gives [federal employees] greater choices over their own lives," Wolf said. "It lets them be more productive and contributes to clean air standards, a [reduction] in environmental pollution and lowered energy costs."

Before Billingslea formalized the HHS policy in March, she went to each of the department's operating divisions, which include the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (formerly the Health Care Financing Administration), and determined that more than 55,000 HHS employees, or about 87 percent of its staff, would be eligible to telecommute based on their job descriptions. Employees with attendance or performance problems won't be considered for teleworking until those issues are resolved.

"We have a long way to go" to reach 25 percent by the end of the year or 100 percent by 2004, she said. "We're doing everything we can to get there, but I can't say now whether we will or won't."

All of OPM's approximately 3,700 employees nationwide are covered by its telework policy. Of those, about 200 regularly telecommute once a week, another 50 or so telework on a sporadic basis and about 900 do it less than one day a week, an OPM official said.

Teleworking has been available within the agency for about 10 years and is always handled on a case-by-case basis. Employees can telecommute "if the duties of the job can be appropriately performed outside the traditional workspace and the employee can work independently and be successful working at home," the OPM official said.

DOT also handles eligibility on a case-by-case basis. Of its more than 100,000 employees, about 29,500 have been deemed eligible for telecommuting so far, Allen said. Of those, only about 1,600 telework at least once every two weeks, and another 650 do so occasionally.

A department team is developing a definition of who is eligible, Allen said, and is working to make sure that managers and employees understand the expectations.

"The question that's going to be a tough nut is eligibility," she said. There are 45,000 Coast Guard employees and others such as air traffic controllers who fall under DOT's umbrella but have jobs that may be difficult to perform outside the office.

Despite the obstacles, GSA's Joice predicts that federal telework efforts will be successful. "Telework itself is not that big a deal. Once people get used to it, meeting these goals might not be as difficult as it appears now."

GSA and OPM are the lead agencies involved in the governmentwide telework initiative, and both contribute to the www.telework.gov Web site, which was launched last month and includes a number of resources for agencies.

OPM also has a number of initiatives planned to help agencies meet the telework goals, including:

n A satellite broadcast in the fall to educate thousands of employees and managers.

n A Web-based training module for agencies to use internally to educate employees and managers and help eliminate misunderstandings.

n Reports to Congress in October on agencies' progress.

"It's not just that there are quotas to meet, but it makes good business sense," said a senior OPM official. Telework "increases productivity, morale, recruitment and retention. Agencies are interested in learning more and updating policies."

With an emphasis on environmental benefits and business issues — including increased retention rates — an OPM official said that achieving complete compliance by 2004 can be done.

What will happen to agencies that don't comply with the increasing percentage requirements and the ultimate goal in 2004? Wolf said there would be no criminal penalties, but he couldn't elaborate further.

"I hope that if they're with the government, they want to comply with the law," he said. Some say they need a carrot, and others say they need a stick. "I just don't know."

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