Government re-opens while feds talk telework in aftermath of blizzard

Federal workers sound off on GovLoop forum about continuity-of-operations plans

The federal government will re-open Friday, for the first time this week, as snow and ice from two major storms this week begins to melt. The Office of Personnel Management  announced late Thursday that the government will open with employees allowed to arrive up to two hours late, and employees still unable to get to work can take unscheduled leave.

However, many employees may have an option other than showing up or losing a paid day off: telework. As employees stayed home earlier this week, many of them continued to work.

The storms have become a proving ground for agency continuity-of-operations (COOP) and telework plans which, in many cases, had never really been tested. However, with the federal and many state and local governments closed all this week (a decision about tomorrow is still to come), those plans have been put into action.

On GovLoop, the social networking site for feds, discussion threads sprang up about how well the plans worked.

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David Dejewski, member of the leadership team with the Defense Department's Business Transformation Agency, wrote on GovLoop that he's experienced at telework. "I found very little change to my routine w/ two exceptions: 1. [Virtual Private Network] loads have increased with additional teleworkers - stressing the system and causing burps. 2. a shoulder injury sustained while shoveling tons of snow make it hard to work the computer as before."

In general, he added, his agency has been proactive in establishing telework, but some employees are not well-equipped outside the office. Those employees face "skeleton help desks, residual reluctance to adopt [telework] technologies, and limited exposure to this venue. Several 'little things' in the configuration are stumbling blocks for those who are navigating telework for the first time."

"A snowstorm like this separates the boys from the men," wrote Terrence Hill, a human resources specialist at the Homeland Security Department. "Organizations like PTO and DISA are not fazed by the weather. They can continue working.... Other organizations still do not participate in telework programs, so work completely stops for these organizations. In my case, the majority of our employees are emergency essential and are exempt from telework."

Employees at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office have been teleworking for several years. According to Danette Campbell, the senior telework adviser for USPTO, who spoke with FederalNewsRadio, the agency had “close to 3,000 people logged into the virtual private network" through the storm. 

PTO has about 5,300 staff members who are able and authorized to telework, Campbell said. About 3,000 of them work at home from one to three days a week, and another 2,300 are “hotelers" -- they work primarily from home, coming into the office once every week or two.

"The snowstorm also makes the case for a cloud computing environment," wrote Andrew Krzmarzik, GovLoop's community manager, on GovLoop. "I know I am oversimplifying, but my assumption is that we just need an Internet connection and a secure access portal...and we're up and running. Probably need some telework training so people can troubleshoot themselves and also get some tips on remaining productive while at home....but all doable, I think."

Our readers had comments as well. On a blog post by Trudy Walsh about D.C.'s "snow panic," commenter Peter Tuttle wrote: "Telework capability has been great over the last two weeks, otherwise I'd have been forced to take unplanned vacation. I can actually concentrate better on writing and researching while out of the office."

On the same comment thread, telework researcher Kate Lister wrote: "It always amazes me that every time there's an emergency, everyone leaps to telecommuting, but no one bothers to work out the bugs in good times. ...Currently less than 3 percent of the U.S. workforce telecommutes the majority of the time (not including the self-employed), but 40 percent hold jobs that could be done from home."

Responding to an FCW Insider post on whether government employees have a responsibility to telework when they can't get to their offices, a reader wrote: "a 'snow' day does not mean I don't have to work. It means I don't have to show up at the office. We have an established Telework Policy and employees follow it. We had to talk our managers into allowing us to telework, but I think that after this week, they see the advantage of it."

Another reader, commenting on the same post, noted that some agencies need to loosen up on telework policies. "Teleworking works both ways," the reader wrote. "I am only allowed to telework one day per week. If bad weather forces the office to be closed, and it's not my telework day, then I'm off that day. If you want me to telework whenever the weather is bad, then allow more than one day per week when the weather is good."

"My office is set up to access all of our systems from anywhere. We encourage everyone to telework routinely, and the 'downside' to that is we stay open when the government closes," wrote Chris Hamm, operations director at the General Services Administration, on a different GovLoop thread,

About the Author

Technology journalist Michael Hardy is a former FCW editor.


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