Telework proponents still face management resistance

Federal managers who have steadfastly resisted allowing their employees to telework have yet another reason to dig in their heels, retrench and batten down the hatches. Their employees are once again loaded for bear.

The House breathed new life into the long-running debate by finally passing its version of a bill intended to cajole federal agencies into letting more employees work from home.

The Telework Improvements Act of 2010 (H.R. 1722) would require every federal agency to designate a telework managing officer as a liaison between supervisors, managers and employees, and ensure that employees are notified about grievance procedures for telework disputes. The bill would also make telework a central part of federal agencies’ plans for dealing with natural or man-made emergencies.

The House must now confer with the Senate, which passed its own telework bill in May.

At first glance, the latest congressional action sounds like good news for telework proponents. It's just the kind of boost they had been hoping for after the game-changing winter weather that Washington, D.C., experienced earlier this year.

“Advocates have long supported expanding telework opportunities for federal employees, but the issue has gained new political momentum since a snowstorm blanketed the Washington metro area in February, forcing the government to shut down for four days,” writes Gautham Nagesh for The Hill’s technology blog.

Even sans snow, feds would welcome the chance to escape Washington area traffic, if only a day or two a week.

“The savings in time and money to area residents could be significant with the passing of a new bill that might very well change the way federal workers do business,” writes Keith Walker for Inside NoVa, a news site serving some of Washington's outlying suburbs.

Then again, it might all be wishful thinking. To hear feds tell it, any effort to expand teleworking in the federal government is bound to run aground in the halls of agencies, where existing policies have gone to die of neglect.

“The USDA Forest Service states that it promotes telecommuting. The region in which I work is against telecommuting,” reader JG commented on “Guess who wins out?”

Another reader chimed in: “Some Federal Aviation Administration managers have told their employees: Don't even ask for teleworking. At this point, the employees never put in a request to telework because it might upset their manager and start a pattern of retaliation.”

The 2010 Federal Employee Viewpoint survey, released earlier this month by the Office of Personnel Management, indicates that those readers are not alone.

More than 22 percent of the 247,000-plus respondents said they were not allowed to telework despite having jobs amenable to working remotely. Less than 13 percent of the respondents said they teleworked at least one day a week, despite the fact that (according to a recent report by the Partnership for Public Service) 62 percent of feds are eligible.

Perhaps federal managers who have been unmoved by their employees’ appeals for a better work/life balance might be swayed by their memories of the D.C. snowstorms. OPM originally had estimated that the federal government lost $100 million per day in salary costs during the government shutdown. However, officials later reduced the estimate to $71 million per day, thanks to employees who teleworked during the storms.

But no one should get their hopes up just yet. Another recent survey — this one by the Government Business Council (the research division of Government Executive Media Group) and CDW Government — found that 31 percent of feds believe their agencies are unprepared to keep employees connected and working during an emergency.

Better keep those shovels handy.


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