Managers resist teleworking

Reluctance on the part of federal managers to allow their employees to work from home or another location outside the office is a primary reason that teleworking has not taken off in government, according to government officials.

"Management reluctance and em.ployee fears are two major barriers to telework implementation," said Teresa Jenkins, director of the Office of Personnel Management's Office of Workforce Relations, speaking Sept. 6 at a hearing of the House Government Reform Committee's Technology and Procurement Policy Subcommittee.

Some employees remain confused about their agency's teleworking policies or don't know whether teleworking is even an option, the subcommittee chairman, Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), said at the hearing. Managers should embrace telecommuting and learn to "shift their focus from process-oriented performance measurements to results," Davis said.

The change will not happen overnight, he said. "It will be a long and gradual process."

Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America, said his message to federal mangers is "let thy employees go." The primary resistance to teleworking is psychological, he said, adding that firewalls and other technologies can help alleviate concerns about data security.

The more agencies use teleworking, the easier it becomes, officials said. In organizations where telecommuting is an accepted practice, "schedules and interaction with teleworkers are seamless, and broad acceptance becomes the norm," Miller said.

Aside from management concerns, other roadblocks remain. Certain federal and state tax laws and regulations "can also act as potential barriers to telecommuting for both the public and private sectors," said Robert Robertson, director of the General Accounting Office's Education, Workforce and Income Security Issues, in his testimony. For example, interstate teleworking arrangements could open the possibility of double-taxing the income of federal telecommuters, he said.

A number of teleworking experts and employers believe that "the uncertainties surrounding the application of individual state tax laws" to teleworking situations must be resolved, Robertson said. If not, those uncertainties could ultimately affect "the willingness of employers and individuals, including federal employees, to participate in tele.commuting programs," he said.

The percentage of federal employees who telecommute at least one day a week has nearly doubled since 1998. However, the percentage is still very small—only 2.6 percent, Jenkins said.

Officials face a growing sense of urgency to boost participation. A provision in last year's Transportation appropriations bill directs agencies to allow all eligible employees to telework at least one day a week by 2004. It also requires agencies to establish teleworking policies.

The General Services Administration has made progress in this area, said David Bibb, deputy associate administrator of the GSA's Office of Real Property. About 12,000 of GSA's 14,300 employees are eligible to telework, and about 2,500 actually do so on a regular or an ad hoc basis, he said.

To increase its participation, GSA officials are finalizing an electronic questionnaire to solicit feedback from GSA employees about teleworking, Bibb said. The survey responses will help officials determine barriers to overcome.

OPM officials, for their part, plan to:

n Offer a telework leadership seminar for top-level agency officials in October.

n Broadcast a satellite educational program to federal agencies in November.

n Offer a conference in January aimed at agency supervisors and managers.

n Publish a guide for managers and supervisors in the fall.

n Help agencies evaluate their progress in implementing telework programs.

In addition, an interagency training consortium will develop an Internet-based training module by November to help reduce manager resistance and employee fears.

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