Get a Life

By Judith Welles

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Get a Life: Telework resistance in agencies at odds with benefits

In the report to Congress on the status of telework at federal agencies, Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry wrote, "We have significant work ahead to develop a strong telework culture." The eye-opening report almost makes that an understatement.

Governmentwide, only 102,900 out of 1,962,975 federal employees -- 5.2 percent --actually teleworked in 2008. And that was a slight increase over 2007.

Agencies with the greatest increases in total number of teleworkers included the departments of Interior, Transportation, and Veterans Affairs and the General Services Administration. One program area that saw a significant increase in teleworking was Interior's U.S. Geological Survey (4,750 to 8,857).

The frequency of telework also increased. More people worked at home one to two days and some even 3 days a week

But the number of federal employees eligible to telework decreased significantly, by some 51,000. Agencies where substantial decreases occurred included the departments of Commerce, State and Treasury.

Although telework is only inching along, agencies still reported cost savings and benefits. The greatest benefit was seen in improved morale. But also, one third of agencies cited productivity and performance benefits.

Among major barriers to telework, nearly two thirds of agencies cited concerns about office coverage. More than half saw management resistance and organizational culture as barriers, and one third cited IT security and IT funding.

Many agencies are tackling the barriers with training for managers and employees; some have established budget for IT expenditures.

Berry emphasized the importance of telework in his guidance last week on H1N1 flu preparedness. Noting that the Federal Government cannot shut down, he called for mitigating the effects of a flu pandemic through "social distancing interventions such as telework."

He also stressed that agencies need to implement and maintain a strong IT system to accommodate remote usage of agency systems. He called for sufficient technical support personnel to resolve remote connectivity issues.

In guidance to agency heads, he wrote, "As many employees as possible should have telework capability...connectivity and equipment commensurate with their work needs, and frequent opportunities to telework so that systems are tested and known to be functional."

This flu season might be just the right time to start testing.

Posted by Judith Welles on Sep 25, 2009 at 12:12 PM

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Reader comments

Tue, Oct 13, 2009

In big cities with long commutes and heavy traffic, telecommuting makes sense, and serves the general public. Out here in flyover country, it is a perk. Other than possibly to give quiet time for people working on special projects, it gives no mission advantage. And among a lot of employees and managers, it is still regarded, rightly or wrongly, as a goof-off day. Driven employees will work hard wherever they are. Some employees need the peer pressure and lack of interesting alternatives (kitchen fridge, TV, etc) to keep them productive. Current fad is to try to get a two-fer, by saying telecommuting also answers COOP requirements. But that ignores the fact that unless people carry PC home EVERY night, if building is put in lockdown (say for a pandemic) on a day they aren't scheduled to telecommute, they won't have a PC anyway. And in a traditional disaster, anything that makes the building unusable will also likely make local houses unusable, plus people will be looking after their families instead of worrying about work.

Tue, Oct 13, 2009

I have been telecommuting 1 day a week from home for the past 3 years. When I have large projects, I telecommute even more. The lack of distractions and other conversations going on around my office is so nice. I get more accomplished on my telecommute days than in a week at work at times. It makes a huge difference in productivity. Many of those that complain about it don't have it as an option in their workplace.

Tue, Oct 13, 2009

I work for an agency that strongly encourages telecommuting. However the smaller screen size, slower response time, reduced functionality, loss of the ability to initiate face-to-face contact, etc. would frustrate me and make me less productive. I pass. I did telework 2 days a week in a previous job at another agency. Whether telecommuting makes sense depends on the job and the technology.

Mon, Sep 28, 2009 M Reston

Good points, Sandy. Additionally, I have never seen productivity gains that are more than temporary. Telecommuniting is a no brainer in the private sector where the marketplace and hiring-firing powers enforce productivity, The government is missing these key enablers. Telework and government just don't mix in most cases. The only good news is we will get an even plainer view of just how worthless some organizations have been now that their people don't even show up for work.

Fri, Sep 25, 2009 Sandy California

The USGS number is completely unbelievable - that's almost every Government employee in the organization. In my corner of USGS, only 3 out of 100 are formally permitted to telecommute, and I don't think the number is much higher in other parts. One possible reason telecommuting numbers are going down overall is increasing security requirements coupled with no extra funding. And before someone claims telecommuting saves money - show me hard dollar savings for the Government. I see no change in office space requirements for part-time telecommuters, and increased costs for IT support. Increased morale, productivity, and performance does not pay for the extra hardware, software, and support needed by telecommuters.

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