GSA offers telework freebie

Interagency telework page

In an effort to encourage agencies to support telecommuting, General Services Administration officials plan to offer a 60-day free trial of the agency's telecenters, satellite offices set up for telecommuters. They expect the offer will resonate with Washington, D.C.-area commuters, who were recently forced to stay home after the latest winter storm or who routinely sit in traffic on the way to the

office.

GSA has 14 such centers in remote locations in Virginia and Maryland and one in West Virginia. The centers provide employees with telephones, computers, office machines and meeting facilities. Intended to fulfill federally mandated telework goals, they offer shorter commutes for employees, while retaining an office environment.

However, agencies pay about $26 per employee per day to use them, which has made some managers hesitant, a GSA spokeswoman said. "One thing that prompted GSA to offer the trial period is to show the cost is minimal for increased productivity," she said.

The free trial is for first-time users and runs from Feb. 1 through March 31.

Federal agencies have varied in their acceptance of telecommuting, said Bob Smith, executive director of the International Telework Association and Council.

"The key is whether senior management is going to be supportive," Smith said. "That's true whether it's a federal agency or a Fortune 500 company."

A July 2003 General Accounting Office report ranked the Education Department highest among four agencies for implementing telecommuting practices and the Department of Veterans Affairs lowest. GSA and the Office of Personnel Management, the agencies responsible for leading the federal telework efforts, ranked in the middle, according to GAO. GSA and OPM officials disputed the office's assessment of their

accomplishments.

GSA's telework centers have no private-sector counterparts, Smith said. "GSA's in a unique situation of being able to do this," he said. "I have to laud them for taking this initiative and break down at least one resistance, which is financial."

Some agencies are resistant for other reasons, he said, notably security. Allowing employees to access internal networks

remotely increases the risk that hackers could break in by masquerading as

employees. "Organizations want to be careful about who's connecting to them," Smith said.

Telecommuting is not always a useful choice, he said, but the telework centers offset some of the significant drawbacks.

"For people who truly require some kind of structured environment, it offers people a more formal office environment," he said. "There are other people working around them they can go to lunch with or bounce an idea off of. One can't underestimate the importance of that for some people."

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