Telework tango

Lawmakers demand that agencies act to allow feds to work off-site

Interagency Telework

Congress is getting serious about creating telework opportunities for federal employees governmentwide. The fiscal 2006 appropriations bill for the Commerce, Justice and State departments includes the latest telework requirements.

Provisions in the bill, which awaits Senate consideration, are designed to make federal agencies pay attention.

The legislation is part of a larger effort to help telework catch fire in the federal workplace. The legislation would require NASA and the National Science Foundation to certify that telecommuting opportunities are available to 100 percent of the eligible workers in those agencies.

The bill also would require that the Commerce, Justice and State departments, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Small Business Administration certify that more telecommuting opportunities are available than in fiscal 2005. Otherwise, those agencies risk losing $5 million each for failing to comply.

"Some agencies are doing better than others when it comes to providing opportunities for their employees to telework, but we still have a long way to go," said Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), author of the telework mandate.

Wolf said in a statement that he did not like being heavy-handed by threatening to withhold money, "but if that is what it is going to take to get more people teleworking, then that is what I will continue to do."

Other groups say telework initiatives have been left in the dust, and it is time to speed them up.

"Building a 21st-century federal workforce means giving federal employees 21st-century tools to do their jobs effectively," said Max Stier, president and chief executive officer of the Partnership for Public Service.

"A well-managed telework program contributes to agency performance and provides federal agencies with a valuable recruitment and retention tool in the war for talent," he said.

Previous laws have required federal agencies to establish policies for eligible employees to participate in telecommuting to the maximum extent possible without impacting their job performance.

As in the fiscal 2005 version, some provisions require agencies to designate a telework coordinator. But in most federal agencies, telework remains the exception, not the rule.

Many studies have shown that telework options generate happier and more productive employees, but federal supervisors in the Washington, D.C., area have not used the option enough to make an impact.

"The federal government should be leading the way when it comes to teleworking instead of being pushed in to it," Wolf said. In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks,"there also is a continuity-of-government issue in responding to emergency situations."

Telework policies continue to evolve as wireless and digital products make it easier for many federal workers to perform their jobs outside the typical office cubicle.

"The innovations of the Information Age — laptop computers, broadband Internet connections, cell phones, BlackBerries — continue to make location less relevant in the working world," said Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee.

"It's not where you do your job, but how you do it," Davis said. "The government needs to be encouraging telework wherever possible. Unfortunately, politics is often like a wheelbarrow: Nothing happens until you start pushing."

At the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, about 25 percent of the agency's workers, or 2,000 employees, are telecommuters.

But at many other agencies, the number of employees who telework is less than 10 percent.

"There simply is just no magic in strapping ourselves in a metal box every day and driving ourselves to the office only to sit behind a computer or talk on the phone for eight hours," Wolf said.


Making telework work

Good candidates for teleworking are employees who:

  • Need little supervision and don't mind working alone.
  • Have good organizational skills and self-discipline.
  • Can be available, if necessary, to communicate with co-workers and customers via e-mail or phone.
  • Have a place to work that is free of interruptions and offers a safe environment for government property.
  • Live within commuting distance because they will probably continue to perform some of their work at the office.
  • Are required to write or perform computer-related tasks.

Source: General Services Administration


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