Telework: Report tells tale of operational benefits, management resistance

Huge advantages to be gained in continuity of operations, cost savings by increasing teleworking capacity, say Partnership for Public Service and Booz Allen

The government is not expanding or promoting flexible work arrangements across the federal sphere, according to a new report from the Partnership for Public Service and the Booz Allen Hamilton consulting firm.

Telework provides the government with a variety of advantages, the most important being continuity of operations, explained Max Stier, president and chief executive officer of the Partnership for Public Service. During the February 2010 snowstorms that paralyzed the East Coast, the federal government estimated that it lost $100 million per day in salary costs. The Office of Personnel Management later reduced that estimate to $71 million per day as a result of employees who teleworked during the storms.

“We need to make sure we have government that’s operating, in particular when we face curveballs— whether they are human-made or from Mother Nature,” Stier said.

The study involved reviewing existing literature, interviews with telework advocates, focus groups, worker interviews, and dialogue with life-work balance coordinators. Regarding solutions, the report concluded the government is not being ambitious or aggressive enough to meet its needs. “You’ve got to start bold if you expect to get anywhere. Our starting proposition is we ought to be looking to 600,000 federal workers telecommuting by 2014,” Stier said.

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Another finding was that agencies and departments must look for key intervention points to drive change. Stier explained that when they move, agencies should be required to build into their space changes plans to greatly enhance teleworking. He cited the example of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which went from 10 percent of its staff teleworking in 2002 to 82 percent compliance in 2008. This change was driven largely by changes in the department’s physical footprint, which allowed it to change staff behavior.

The report found the most important benefit of telework is that government can continue operating when there is a disruption to a physical facility. Stier explained that huge advantages to be gained in terms of service continuity and cost savings by increasing teleworking capacity.

Regions such as the Washington metropolitan area stand to benefit from the reduction in congestion, pollution and wear and tear of the general infrastructure. Other opportunities include improved productivity and employee morale, the report said. Steir said people tend to work better when they can work from home or other places. There is also the advantage being able to recruit and retain better talent and service by improving the hours the government can be open to customers. “There is a really long list of opportunities. The question is how to get there,” he said.

However, telework has met resistance in the federal and private sectors. Among the most common impediments, the report identified manager resistance, IT infrastructure and information assurance problems. Also, the report found another major challenge in the lack of metrics for personnel performance in government. “As a result, managers use physical presence as a proxy for actual performance,” he said.

Among its conclusions, the report stated that the government must think bigger and bolder. Stier said the government must use the opportunity to force change, such as when agencies move to new facilities.



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