D.C. snow day could be telework learning experience

It's no surprise that heavy snow leads to the federal government's shut-down. In the first day or two after a major snowstorm, roads are treacherous, and many people can't even get out of their driveways as they wait for plow crews to get to residential streets. When two feet of snow cover the region, as it did today following the weekend's storm, the closure of federal offices is all but guaranteed.

But there's a new aspect to federal closure now: telework. When the Office of Personnel Management issued its order closing the government for Dec. 21, it specified that most employees would get paid leave. However, telework employees might have to work, depending on their individual telework agreements, under the terms of the order.

Telework is still a relatively new phenomenon in the federal government and agency leaders are still learning how to incorporate it in their plans. Federal managers should take advantage of snow day closings of the federal government as informal tests to assess how effective teleworking is for a given agency or government organization, and to see what opportunities might exist to improve, said Steve O’Keefe, executive director of the Telework Exchange, a public-private partnership that promotes telework.

With unanticipated days off, more federal managers may be trying teleworking for the first time, O’Keefe suggested. But to be successful, it needs to be planned for, and agencies need to develop best practices and incorporate lessons learned from experience on a regular basis, he said.

“A lot of managers who don’t telework on a daily basis are teleworking today, and they can see the opportunities,” O’Keefe said. “This is obviously not a disaster-type environment, but the value of telework pays dividends every day--not just from a business continuity perspective but from a productivity perspective. Hopefully, today’s experience will give managers a better line of sight to the value of this.”

With planning being conducted for continuity of operations and flu pandemics, brief teleworking experiences such as snow days could have a positive effect, he added. “We need to embrace the experience we have today as a test, and we can learn from it,” O’Keefe said.

For example, the managers can see whether the teleworking infrastructure they have, the bandwidth and network connections, is adequate. There also will be feedback on how planning can help boost productivity while teleworking.

According to an OPM study released in August 2009, the federal government reported about 103,000 teleworkers in 2008, or about 9 percent of the eligible population. Forty-eight agencies reported an increase in their overall telework numbers compared to previous years..

On Dec. 16, Rep. Rob Wittman ( R-Va.)  introduced the Telework Tax Incentive Act to reduce traffic congestion and increase worker productivity. If enacted, it would allow eligible workers an annual tax credit of up to $1,000 for teleworking expenses. Employers also would be eligible for a tax credit if an employee teleworks at least 75 days a year.

“Adding more cars to the road is not viable for the environment or our infrastructure; teleworking can bring some relief to this issue", Wittman said in a statement.

In a related development, federal unions recently wrote to the White House asking for input into federal teleworking policies. A coalition of seven union organizations on Nov. 10 suggesting that federal teleworking should be more widely used. They suggested that unions ought to be involved in formulating telework standards and policies.

“Unfortunately, the many positives of a healthy telework program have not resulted in the ability of most federal workers to enjoy this benefit,” the unions wrote.

About the Authors

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Federal Computer Week.

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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