Telecommuting hits a road block

Federal telecommuting struggles for acceptance despite efforts to kick-start the program

For Lisa Erspamer, telecommuting means the difference between working as a resource manager for an Energy Department lab in Berkeley, Calif., or finding another job closer to home.

Telecommuting from her home in Livermore, Calif., 50 miles away from Berkeley, is "definitely a perk," she said. "I can spend more hours working locally and not waste time commuting."But Erspamer is a rarity in the federal government, despite a three-year effort by the President's Management Council to encourage more federal employees to telecommute. Today, only about 25,000 federal workers telecommute from their homes or a telecommuting center, typically located in suburban areas — a figure that falls well short of the goal of 60,000 telecommuters the council wanted to reach by the end of fiscal 1998.

The government's sluggishness to adopt telecommuting, which some refer to as teleworking or flexiplace, has not gone unnoticed. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) introduced legislation last month that would require President Clinton to sign an executive order instituting telecommuting programs and alternative

work schedules in agencies.

The order aims to reduce traffic congestion in the Washington, D.C., area by requiring federal agencies to provide a monthly transit benefit to their employees. It also requires agencies to remove any cultural, managerial and organizational barriers, such as the fear of losing control over workers, that block the widespread use of telecommuting.

In a March 2 letter, Wolf, whose district stretches across the traffic-congested western suburbs of the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, said he would pursue legislative action if the president does not immediately sign the order, which has been sitting unsigned for more than six months.

"This is an opportunity to solve the transportation problem in the region and give people choices and control over their own lives," Wolf said.

Telecommuting also might provide a good recruiting tool for the government, which has tens of thousands of information technology jobs unfilled. Private-sector employees who work from home are not likely to take an agency job if they are not offered the same flexibility. "Clearly, it would make a difference,"

Wolf said.

Given the current tight labor market — the national unemployment rate is at 4.1 percent — telework could be the perk that convinces office-bound workers to accept a government job, workplace experts believe. Even so, the number of current federal employees who want to telework far outnumber the ones who are allowed to.

That's a problem, said James Buckner, chief information officer at the Army Materiel Command. Compensation and overall quality-of-life issues are where government lags behind industry. "To allow people on occasion to stay at home or go to an alternative work place would be another one of those

perks to add into the compensation [package] to correct the problem," he said.

Needed: More Manager Training

While most agencies have a telecommuting program in place today, some agencies — such as the General Services Administration and the Transportation Department — have embraced it more eagerly than others.

GSA and DOT are the lead agencies on the President's Management Council's National Telecommuting Initiative, which laid out a three-year plan, beginning in January 1996, to increase federal participation from about 3,000 to 60,000 telecommuters by the end of fiscal 1998.

But the initiative, said Wendell Joice, the team leader for telework and workplace initiatives at GSA, is struggling. "We're trying to re-energize it. We're trying to find ways to make it easier and provide more support for managers," he said. "We're trying to make it even easier to make streamlined policies."

"There was a push from top managers to do this," said Sally Perry, center director for local-area networking in GSA's Office of the Chief Information Officer. "Otherwise, I don't think we would have as much of it as we do."

The lack of a single, governmentwide policy may be partly to blame for the lower than expected numbers of telecommuters. But training supervisors how to manage such a work arrangement would encourage them to allow more workers to telecommute, said Ed Weiner, senior policy analyst at the Transportation Department.

Decisions to telework tend to be left up to managers' discretion, and some are unprepared and uncomfortable with the organizational change, Weiner said. Many supervisors move up in the ranks within DOT without the skills necessary to run a geographically dispersed organization. However, the department

was able to meet its own goal of 1,400 telecommuters — about 5 percent of its eligible workers.

The Technology Obstacle

Technology is at the heart of teleworking. PCs, phones, fax machines and modems are tools in the teleworker's arsenal. GSA, for example, is selectively offering Digital Subscriber Line, Integrated Services Digital Network and cable modem access to some of its teleworkers, while all employees can dial-in

to access files.

But broadband connections are expensive, difficult to set up and not available in every city. The heavy-duty lines only make sense for workers who need to transfer large amounts of data, such as graphics files, between home and work. And workers without high-speed access are limited in the type of work they can perform from home.

Furthermore, some jobs are not suited for the work-at-home environment. Take the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service, where employees collaborate to analyze satellite weather data streams and monitor the system that produces the data.

"That requires instant collaboration," said Helen Wood, director of the Office of Satellite Data Processing and Distribution at NOAA. "If everyone is not at the same stage in terms of being wired, then you're not going to find them. I think to do effective telecommuting, you have to understand the nature of how work is accomplished in the organization."

The more an employee needs "to look someone in the face," the less likely they are to telework, said John O'Brien, personnel policy program manager at the Environmental Protection Agency, which has about 1,200 telecommuters. "EPA is one of the most meeting-intensive places in government," he said. As a result, the agency limits to two days a week the amount of time an employee can work outside the office.

Sometimes workers on the road or those with long commutes need a place to plug in. GSA operates about 20 telecommuting centers in the Washington, D.C., area, which, according to a General Accounting Office report, are going underused. For around $50 a week, federal employees can work from an office cubicle using either their own computer or one provided by the center. But prices are expected to double in October, when agencies must cover 100 percent of the operating costs of the centers.

The fiscal 1999 omnibus appropriations bill made available a minimum of $50,000 for each agency to use GSA's telecommuting centers.

The Agriculture Department last November opened a new telework center in Beltsville, Md., that can accommodate 32 USDA workers and contractors on either a short-term or long-term basis. It offers a keyboard with Braille and software that reads computer-based text. The USDA plans to advertise the service nationwide.

Centers such as those could be the way agencies offer employees a way to telecommute. Renewed congressional interest, a tight labor market, increased traffic congestion, the growth of the Internet and a more technology-savvy work force are all indications that teleworking will take off in government.

"I think it's like Y2K," said Ira Hobbs, deputy CIO at the USDA. "A slow start, but a strong finish."

NEXT STORY: DOD leans on leasing, outsourcing

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