The new faces of telework

Better tools and changing attitudes cut the commute time for government professionals

From a basement office in his home about a dozen miles north of Pittsburgh, Navy Capt. James Oakes wraps up a monthly meeting of senior commanders whom he gathered online by using the service’s Web conferencing application.

Unlike the well-worn image of a government teleworker toiling on more heads-down, solitary tasks, Oakes is a senior-level official whose job with the Navy’s manpower and personnel organization requires regular contact and collaboration with others. He is the first officer to participate in the Navy’s recently launched Virtual Command pilot program, which aims to prove whether officers can successfully telework in staff positions.

Oakes is part of a new wave of government employees, including lawyers, case workers, program managers and military commanders, for whom telework is now an option, thanks to technological advances, supportive policy changes and a greater willingness to experiment with work-from-home arrangements.

“I think the range of positions that lend themselves to telework just continues to expand,” said Jack Penkoske, director of manpower, personnel and security at the Defense Information Systems Agency, where nearly half the staff already teleworks at least once a week. More are expected to follow suit after the agency relocates its northern Virginia headquarters to Fort Meade, 35 miles away in Anne Arundel County, Md.

Agencies over the years have let a relatively small number of employees work from home, typically those whose jobs were mostly autonomous and required infrequent interaction with colleagues. An Office of Personnel Management report states that about 9 percent of eligible federal employees telework regularly. Other estimates place the number of government teleworkers higher, but those include employees who work from home very infrequently, such as when a family member is sick or during bad weather.

Whatever the exact number, it will certainly grow, in part because of the types of jobs that are now viewed as viable candidates for telework, government and industry executives say.

New technology is a big reason that telework is becoming more common and moving up the government pay scale. In particular, the increasing use of collaboration and secure networking tools makes it easier for organizations to support home-based work activities, and for those new management-level teleworkers to interact with their subordinates, wherever they may work.

“We are starting to see a lot more interest in collaboration tools,” said Cindy Auten, general manager of the Telework Exchange, a private/public partnership that supports federal teleworkers.

Telework also dovetails with the objectives of continuity-of-operations plans — work-at-home programs keep employees on the job even if offices must close.

Government employees say the ability to telework helps them balance work and home life, cut commuting costs, and increase productivity.

As the following case studies illustrate, those benefits are also enjoyed now by some government employees for whom telework would not have been an option in the past.

About the Author

John Moore is a freelance writer based in Syracuse, N.Y.

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