Earthquake: Another missed opportunity for telework?

The earthquake on Aug. 23 might not have done a lot of physical damage around the Washington, D.C., metro area, but it cost the federal government more than it should have in terms of employee productivity, one expert said.

Federal officials moved quickly in reaction to the magnitude 5.8 earthquake, which occurred at 1:51 p.m., and was centered in central Virginia. Offices in Washington, D.C., were evacuated and other buildings, like the White House, Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol, were temporarily closed. The Pentagon was reopened to employees in half an hour. The others soon reopened.

In light of what happened, many federal employees opted to go home for the rest of the day, and agencies may have lost a half of a day’s work, said Josh Sawislak, a senior fellow at the Telework Exchange, a public-private partnership that studies the workforce issue.


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Sawislak was at the Washington Convention Center downtown at a conference on telework when the shaking began. Soon, “people came screaming out of ballroom,” he said.

As things settled down though, those employees who returned to the office were likely telling their stories about the quake to their co-workers, with little work getting done.

It would have been different for teleworkers. The earthquake might have taken a few minutes for cleanup. At his home, Sawislak said a few pictures fell off the walls. When he got home after a congested hour-long commute out of Washington, the cleanup took about 20 minutes.

Teleworkers wouldn’t have gone through congested commute or the slowed Metro system. They would have done a few minutes of story-telling, and returned to work, Sawislak said.

In a strange way, the problems with traffic and public transportation might prove to be a blessing, helping officials get focused on the process for evacuations.

Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, called the earthquake a "spontaneous evacuation" that no one could have predicted, unlike Hurricane Irene that was coming up the East Coast.

The earthquake was "a live-fire test," Sawislak said.

“What you don’t get with a drill is the reality factor,” he said. During a drill, “people don’t come running out of a building.”

The quake did its damage though. The General Services Administration’s Public Building Service has closed 13 federal buildings early on Aug. 24. Some are closed pending further inspections.

The Office of Personnel Management has been issuing updates on building status and work plans. Officials said on Aug. 24 that changes are happening quickly as buildings are inspected and reopened across the federal government.

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

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