DISA says ‘yes, sir’ to telework

Workplace options could forestall employee losses

The Defense Information Systems Agency is hoping that allowing employees to work from home will help prevent a major brain drain when the agency moves from Northern Virginia to Maryland.

Lt. Gen. Charles Croom, DISA’s director, speaking at the IPIC 2006 conference in Orlando, Fla., earlier this month, said he is in favor of telework as the agency prepares to shift the bulk of its operations from Northern Virginia to Fort Meade, Md., in the next five to six years. The Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) decided that such a move would save money and serve the Defense Department’s best interests.

Croom said some employees who don’t want to leave Northern Virginia or face a grueling commute have already left the agency. “I’m bleeding to death,” Croom said, because industry and other government agencies have lured DISA employees.

Two-thirds of the agency’s employees, about 4,400 people, now live in Northern Virginia. DISA initially intends to offer all its employees — 5,000 worldwide — the option of telecommuting two days a week. DISA officials are considering extending that option to five days a week.

Commuting time is a big factor in employees’ decisions about where they work and for whom they work, said Jack Penkoske, DISA’s director of manpower, personnel and security. Penkoske said reducing employees’ commuting time with telework options would help DISA retain its workforce as the deadline for the BRAC-initiated move gets closer. Telecommuting, he said, would let some employees avoid uprooting their families and moving them across the Potomac River to Maryland.

Bill Mularie, chief of the Telework Consortium based in Herndon, Va., said telework also diminishes the agency’s vulnerability to a potential terrorist attack.

Croom signed the new telework policy at the end of 2005. Between 350 and 400 DISA employees regularly take advantage of the two-day-a-week telework policy, Penkoske said. An additional 1,000 employees telework on an ad-hoc basis.

DISA established a telework team to study what it must do to support more employees teleworking in the future, Penkoske said. That team will assess PC hardware, network connections and the use of telework sites away from home, he said. It will also address cultural issues, such as interaction between supervisors and remote workers.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who represents the Virginia suburbs where many DOD employees face BRAC-initiated moves in the next five years, praised DISA for crafting a sensible telework policy. “There’s no downside,” he said. “It’s not going to cost anything, and workers will be more productive.”

Arlington County, Va., home to DISA’s headquarters, stands ready to help, perhaps by establishing telework centers, said Terry Holzheimer, the county’s director of economic development. The Northern Virginia county faces large DOD job losses in the current BRAC cycle. It lost a sizeable Navy workforce in the previous BRAC round.

Holzheimer said the county’s Crystal City office complex, which is one subway stop from the Pentagon, is a perfect place to set up telework centers. He cited its access to mass transit and extensive communications infrastructure.

DISA, however, is leaning toward home-based telework arrangements. Penkoske said the agency has started to look at network contracts that could provide high-speed connections to employees’ homes.

The telework team is also exploring PC hardware that would support alternative workplaces, especially laptop computers and docking stations that employees could use at home and at the office, Penkoske said.

Only employees performing unclassified work can telecommute, Penkoske said. But the agency is exploring other telework opportunities for employees who do classified work. Holzheimer said Arlington County can help DISA locate secure telework facilities for classified work.

The initial pool of teleworkers primarily uses e-mail, the Internet and databases. But Penkoske said he expects that DISA will offer other tools, such as video and white board conferencing systems, to teleworkers in the future.

If DISA eventually allows some employees to telework five days a week, Penkoske said, it must find ways to include face-to-face time for employees and their supervisors. No technology can replace that human interaction, which every organization needs, he added.

Christopher J. Dorobek contributed to this report.

DISA hustles to retain workforceIn the next five to six years, the Defense Information Systems Agency will move most of its employees from Northern Virginia to Fort Meade, Md. The agency is developing policies and plans for dealing with the consequences of that move.

Here are several features of those plans.

  • Employees may telecommute two days a week.

  • Teleworkers may perform unclassified work only, but DISA will consider ways to support classified work in the future.

  • DISA is interested in contracts that offer work-at-home Internet connections.

  • DISA might include Arlington County, Va., telework centers in its plans.

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