OPM: Treat telework as an asset, not a perk

For federal telecommuting to gain popularity, agency managers need to start viewing telework as an agency asset rather than primarily as a perquisite for employees who enjoy the flexibility of working from home, a senior White House official said.

“If you view [telework] just as a flexibility tool, you won’t see it as a business asset,” Justin Johnson, deputy chief of staff for the Office of Personnel Management, said at a FedScoop seminar on Aug. 24.

Johnson and Danette Campbell, senior adviser for telework at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, said telework can be viewed as an asset in many cases because it can provide for greater continuity of operation in the event of bad weather or disaster, workforce mobility and resiliency, reduced workplace real estate costs and improved competitiveness in hiring with the private sector.

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For example, teleworking is useful when a federal building is damaged by flood, power outage, blizzard or an earthquake such as the one that struck Washington D.C. on Aug. 23, they said.

“The earthquake is another example of things that could happen, Johnson said. “The ability to remain affective under any circumstance is an asset.”

Agencies need to show a return on investment for telework, Campbell said. The patent office has saved more than $19.8 million on real estate costs because 3,300 of its examiners are teleworkers, she said. Most of those employees are engineers, scientists and attorneys to whom standardized productivity measures can be applied, she said.

Managers and employees must make a careful analysis before determining if telework is appropriate for a specific position, Johnson said. This requires a strategic judgment of whether telework can be used effectively to help an agency meet its mission needs, he said.

“Telework is often discussed as a ‘magic bullet,’ and that is possible, but not everywhere,” Johnson said.

Some managers view telework primarily as an employee benefit, and they fear perceptions of favoritism if telework seems to be awarded arbitrarily, Johnson said. Agency directors may need to encourage workplace culture change to achieve a shift in how telework is perceived, he added.

“Telework has two sides, the IT side and the culture side,” Johnson said. “The culture side is where it will rise or fall.”

About 1.2 million federal employees are considered eligible for telework, however, industry estimates show a small percentage of that number are participating. Under the Telework Enhancement Act, agencies were required to have determined telework eligibility assessments for all employees and to have communicated that status to their employees in writing by June 7. Agency heads also were to have appointed telework managing officers.

Some agencies notified eligible employees of the exact number of telework hours per year for which they were qualified, while others did not.

At the patent office, employees were given notice of their eligibility and also of the number of telework hours per year for which they were eligible, Campbell said.

At OPM, employees were notified of their telework eligibility status, which could be “fully eligible,” and not the number of days or hours for which they were eligible, Johnson said.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.


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