Telecommuting roadblocks

If you're wondering why few feds telecommute, you'll be interested in a recent General Accounting Office report, which found many obstacles in the way.

GAO says the biggest challenge to establishing and expanding telecommuting programs is management's concerns over the effect on their organization's operation. Those concerns include assessing whether an agency has positions and employees suitable for telecommuting, protecting proprietary and sensitive data, and establishing cost-effective telecommuting programs.

Telecommuting is not a viable option for every position or employee, GAO found. I could've told you that. Obviously, not every position is suitable for telecommuting. It doesn't make sense for jobs involving face-to-face interaction with customers, but positions involving administrative activities and report writing can often be performed from a remote location, GAO found.

The prevailing wisdom is that tele.commuting is best suited for high- performing, self-motivated and independent employees. A real problem for federal managers is dealing with situations where only some employees under their supervision are suitable for tele.commuting. How does a manager determine that only some are high performing or sufficiently self-motivated?

Although managers are paid to deal with employee performance issues, allowing some employees to telecommute and excluding others can open a can of worms. What's to prevent an employee from filing a grievance alleging sexual or racial discrimination? And how would a manager prove he or she didn't discriminate? It won't be easy.

Apart from the management concerns, GAO found that certain federal and state laws and regulations can also act as potential barriers to telecommuting for federal employees. Overall, GAO said the application of state tax and employee safety laws—enacted before the transition to a more technological and information-based economy—is still evolving, and their ultimate impact on telecommuting arrangements remains unclear at this time. In other words, don't expect to be offered the opportunity to telecommute anytime soon.

What's missing from this report are suggestions on how to fix the issue. GAO is usually hot to trot when it performs an audit and finds an agency isn't following the rules. Then it jumps on the agency and tells managers what they should do. But here, where there are no clear-cut rules, only obstacles, all GAO does is report on them. Isn't GAO also paid to come up with recommendations? If I were the chairman of the congressional panel that requested this report, I'd send it back to GAO and say, "This report needs work."

Recommendations and solutions are important. A lot of employees want to telecommute. Plus, the federal government is trying to depict itself as "family-friendly." So supporting tele.commuting in every way possible would be a step in the right direction.

Zall is a retired federal employee who since 1987 has written the Bureaucratus column for Federal Computer Week. He can be reached at


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