Snowfuggedaboudit: Practical experience reveals telework isn't as easy as it sounds

The snowstorm that paralyzed the Washington metropolitan area in December 2009 was widely considered to be the first major test of telework and continuity-of-operations plans in the era of ubiquitous connectivity. At the time, no one suspected that a second opportunity was only weeks away, but the double wallop of two major snowstorms just days apart in mid-February provided it.

Although the federal government was officially closed for four of the five days of the week of Feb. 8, many employees stayed on the job, connecting from home. So did employees of contractors and other businesses that serve the government.

Now that things are slowly returning to normal -- although the massive piles of plowed snow lining many streets will remain there for weeks -- many people who teleworked are now contemplating how they might have done better.

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"The biggest lesson on telework was that those who do it regularly did fine during the big shutdown, but those who don't tended to have problems with the configuration of their setup at home," said Jon Eisenberg, a manager at the National Academies, a nonprofit organization that provides scientific advice to agencies. " There are many things that can go wrong, from routers that block [virtual private network] connections to key software missing on computers. For those who regularly connect remotely, these problems have been resolved. But for those connect rarely, these problems weren't solved and were show-stoppers. Worse, with the closure, normal help-desk service wasn't available to fix the problems."

Working from home during a major event brings its own set of problems. While they're trying to work, grown-ups are also dealing with children who are out of school, shoveling out their cars and protecting their houses. "Telework isn't a panacea when the daycare is closed or the nanny is snowed out," wrote Helen Mosher, social media strategist for AFCEA, on Twitter.

Several readers posted comments suggesting that agency policies -- and, more importantly, actual practices -- are often out of step with their rhetoric.

One reader, reacting to the story "Government reopens while feds talk telework in the aftermath of blizzard," wrote that offices in the Environmental Protection Agency have all their employees signed up in their telework plans so that it looks like the agency offers a great deal of flexibility. But, the reader went on, "In fact,it is more than strongly discouraged by management and it more likely than not denied on a regular basis. Even doing it on a periodic basis is hard to get approval for. EPA should be leaders in telework since it is supposed to be beneficial for the environment, save government energy and infrastructure costs."

Anyone who wants to take another stab at teleworking during a snowstorm may have a chance soon: The Washingon Post's Capital Weather Gang says there's the possibility of another one early next week.

About the Author

Technology journalist Michael Hardy is a former FCW editor.

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Reader comments

Thu, Feb 18, 2010 Lena

I thought Helen's point was worth noting. A parent of young children may not be able to telecommute if childcare isn't available. That is what your annual leave is for. There is a learning curve to telecommuting, and these snow days were a great opportunity to learn the importance of things like resolving connectivity issues, ensuring that you bring home the proper files to accomplish your work, and making child care arrangements. Each can be a show stopper.

Wed, Feb 17, 2010 Kate Lister

Like you say, practice is the key to making telecommuting a successful continuity of operations strategy. Three quarters of teleworkers say they could continue to work in the event of a disaster compared with just 28% on non-teleworkers [2007 CDW-G Telework Report] Kate Lister

Wed, Feb 17, 2010

Excuse me - can't telework from home because the nanny is snowed in? You have to be kidding me. Maybe some of these people need to see how the rest of the country lives....

Wed, Feb 17, 2010 Helen Mosher

John, I telework regularly, five days out of every ten, and have a 3-month-old son. I use an out-of-home day care provider when I'm in the office; she was not accessible last week. I have someone who comes into my home on days I telework. He was snowed in as well. Sometimes distilling the essence of a logistical problem into 140 characters is a challenge, to be sure, but I didn't intend to come off as inane or nonsensical. I did get work done last week, to be sure, but not at my usual level of productivity, and not because there's something inherently wrong with teleworking as a way to keep organizations functioning during a crisis or disaster. That said, identifying some of the hiccups we run into during a blizzard might better prepare us for contingencies we need to set in place for the next time we face a situation that shuts down the region for any extended period of time.

Wed, Feb 17, 2010

I telework regularly, no problems. My problem with the snowed-out folks was that my cohorts *didn't even try*. They don't telework now and when they heard "snow day", left skid marks in the parking lot and never looked back. The real problem here is the sense that once out of the office, all responsibility ends (and I'm talking our management, too!). If they had a decent sense of responsibility they would have checked out their connectivity long ago. But noooooooo....our only consolation on the non-workers was that the weather was too lousy for them to enjoy their time off.

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