Federal agencies still lagging on telework programs

woman teleworking outdoors

It has been three years since President Barack Obama signed the Telework Enhancement Act mandating agency executives create policies designed to maximize telework use, yet federal agencies are still far from reaching the potential benefits of telework, according to a Citrix-led study.

The study, which questioned 120 government executives, senior executive service and presidential appointees with roles in federal telework, suggests the government is missing out on approximately $6.4 billion in potential cost savings by not bolstering telework opportunities for the 685,000 telework-eligible federal employees. The study says the government is also bleeding millions of dollars annually in lost productivity from employee absenteeism and losing top talent to a private sector that has taken better advantage of telework than feds have, using it for cost savings and to satisfy employees.

"Across the board, feds embracing telework is way behind targets and any kind of schedule that might have been put out there when the focus was on telework as a cost-savings and employee-retention tool," said Tom Simmons, area vice president for Citrix Public Sector .

According to the Citrix study and its Federal Telework Savings Calculator, based on today’s economic climate, better federal telework implementation could:

  • Save the federal government $6.4 billion a year.
  • Reduce absenteeism by 31 percent as calculated by the Telework Savings Calculator.
  • Increase productivity by 13 percent.
  • Boost collaboration -- 62 percent of executives reported positive impacts on collaboration resulting from telework at their agency.
  • Reduce office space  costs by up to 30 percent.

About one-third of feds eligible to telework actually do, with fewer than 7 percent teleworking at least once per week in 2012. According to Simmons, 88 percent of employees say they would if they could.

"Truly, there is a very small population of government workforce taking advantage of telework," Simmons said.

The Citrix survey echoes the results of other studies done over the past three years. The narrative that emerges from the analyses combined is that agencies are interested in enabling telework but have been unsure of how to do it securely, and therefore slow to move on it to any great degree. Some agencies have shown more progress recently.

The roadblocks to increased telework are the same culprits that have made it challenging since the late 1990s, when the idea began gaining steam in the private and public sectors.

Technology, Simmons said, ranked as only the fourth biggest barrier to telework adoption in federal agencies, far behind security issues, agency culture and manager resistance. A lack of telework training or ineffective training when it is administered also rated highly as obstacles.

Simmons said most technology infrastructure necessary for agencies to telework is in place, though some systems may need upgrading. Forward-thinking agencies could see telework-necessary infrastructure incorporated into IT lifecycle plans, thereby reducing upfront costs.

"When we look at the motivations of what is holding back telework in government, access to technology is a component of it, but the more overriding motivations we’re seeing are middle management acceptance of telework for themselves and for employees they manage – it’s part of the overall culture," Simmons said.

Some agencies have done a great job incorporating telework into general operations, Simmons said, including the General Services AdministrationPatent and Trademark Office and the Department of Agriculture. Simmons said those agencies successfully changed workplace cultures to great result, overcoming what Simmons called the "biggest hurdle" to more expansive telework adoption across government.  

That challenge – changing a workplace culture that developed over a century where employees show up to the office every day, do their jobs and are evaluated based on what managers see – is the one standing squarely between federal agencies and a boatload of savings, increased productivity and happier employees less likely to bolt for the private sector.

"In order to get cultural acceptance of telework, the focus needs to move from work being a place to work being a set of agreed upon outputs and measurable so that there is not just a confidence that teleworks are working remotely, but measures associated with showing better productivity output working from home," Simmons said.

About the Author

Frank Konkel is a former staff writer for FCW.


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