Teleworking faces familiar roadblocks

Few federal employees are teleworking because their bosses don't support it

Despite the disruptions to the federal workplace since last September, few federal employees are teleworking, or working from home with the help of information technology, because of an age-old problem — their bosses don't support it.

Telework-savvy managers are few and far between, said Theresa Noll, a program analyst in the Innovative Workplaces Division of the General Services Administration's Office of Governmentwide Policy. She was speaking June 19 at a Web seminar, "Technology Barriers to Home-Based Telework," a study of federal telework policies and practices by Booz Allen Hamilton.

"Ultimately, what this study proves is that the technology is available, but we have managers who are still recalcitrant in their positions," Noll said.

Although 28 million Americans, or more than 21 percent of U.S. workers older than 18, work from home via the Internet or other computer-based technology, fewer than 75,000 federal employees, or 4.2 percent of the federal workforce, do the same, according to the most recent figures available from the Office of Personnel Management.

The study, which GSA commissioned in August 2001, collected more than 1,500 responses from telework coordinators, IT staff members and chief information officers at 10 federal agencies, according to Noll. GSA also conducted case studies of agencies with what Noll called "mature" telework programs.

Although the study did not identify the agencies, GSA sources say they include the Transportation Department's Federal Railroad Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

The study findings, which were delivered to Congress in early May, showed that despite managers' hesitation about telework, 91 percent of the employees surveyed said they could perform "most or all" of their work activities from home just as well as they could at the office, Noll said.

In essence, the constraints are not technological but managerial, added John McGady, a senior associate at Booz Allen who led the study. "Products exist out there to make telework work. Whether it does really comes down to how well or extensively [those products are] applied by workers and their organizations."

Some senior federal managers do recognize the strategic value of teleworking and incorporate the management of telework into their IT planning, McGady said. The majority of federal managers, however, "address telework needs after they make the decision" to allow an employee to work from home, he said.

More than half the teleworking employees surveyed use their own computers to work at home, and more than three-quarters use slower analog or dial-up Internet connections, Noll said.

Many survey respondents worried that allowing an employee to telework would, at a minimum, double the IT costs in the agency budget because of the need to provide additional computers for employees at home as well as the office, McGady said.

But the "seat cost" of teleworking employees, which reflects the annualized cost of computer hardware and software, technical support and Internet connections, is only 30 percent more than the seat cost of an employee working solely in the office, he said.

Managerial resistance to teleworking also occurs in the private sector, said Gil Gordon, president of Gil Gordon Associates and a member of the International Telework Association and Council, which sponsored the Web seminar.

"We have to remember that the number of teleworkers is growing every year, and [those numbers are] basically changing the assumptions about the workplace that are more than 300 years old," he said. "So a change will take some time."

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