Tech lab promotes telework options

The Software Productivity Consortium opened its Telework Lab, a resource for agencies looking to outfit remote workers

The Software Productivity Consortium last week officially opened its Telework Lab, a resource for agencies looking for strategies, equipment and architectures to outfit remote workers.

However, despite gains in telecommuting technology — many of which were on display at the lab's Sept. 24 unveiling — a pair of stubborn barriers stands in the way of widespread telecommuting, officials say.

These longstanding hurdles are the lack of pervasive broadband options, particularly in residential areas, and the unwillingness of many agencies to take new telecommuting mandates seriously.

"Most federal agencies support telecommuting, but it is the mid-level managers who say no. They still want to see people everyday," said Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who has championed the telework initiative as a way to tackle traffic and environmental issues plaguing the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.

Wolf accused agency managers of "dumbing down" the criteria used to identify employees with jobs that could be performed at least partially via telecommuting.

To make his point, Wolf said that some agencies have claimed that only 7 percent of employees in a particular department qualify for teleworking and that 6.5 percent have been given the option.

Although such tactics may allow agencies to meet current telecommuting requirements set forth by legislation — which stipulates that eligible employees be given the option to work from home by 2005 — these moves are not genuine attempts to promote telecommuting, Wolf said.

To curb this practice, Wolf said he advocates having a senior executive in each agency be responsible for developing teleworking strategies. Additionally, the Office of Personnel Management should police teleworking efforts and grade agencies' progress, much like the government's Year 2000 efforts were handled, he continued.

Even though many agencies have reportedly shied away from broad attempts at telecommuting, the Treasury Department's Inspector General for Tax Administration — which used Telework Lab services — is an exception.

Joseph Hungate, the office's chief information officer, outlined at the Telework Lab event his agency's path to designating "nearly 100 percent" of its employees as eligible for work-at-home options. Hungate also detailed technologies the office is using to achieve teleworking goals (see box).

Although formidable, agency reluctance to have employees working outside designated offices is not the only impediment to teleworking.

In fact, the plethora of problems facing nationwide access to broadband technology, such as high-speed cable and DSL, has also stymied attempts to foster telework.

Paul Morris, a city attorney who is also executive director of the Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency (UTOPIA), described a recent effort by several Utah cities to establish a united means for attracting broadband service providers.

Morris said the effort grew out of the extreme difficulties state and local governments face in getting comprehensive high-speed service for citizens.

The legislation will soon be extended to other state and local governments as a model for states grappling with residents' limited access to broadband, Morris said.

And telecommuting is the single greatest driver of broadband demand, according to Bruce Mehlman, the Commerce Department's assistant secretary of technology policy. But, because of broadband's limited availability, we have yet to see "telework in its true form," he said.

"Now we believe it is only logging on from home and working some," Mehlman said.

But the Telework Lab aims to prove that telecommuting is far more than that. For instance, telework executives have focused heavily on devising electronic counterparts to many aspects of interpersonal communication.

William Mularie, chairman of the Telework Consortium, said in reference to the need for videoconferencing, "We need to see each other as well as hear each other. Seeing each other is a critical part of collaboration."

Telework Lab solutions that facilitate communication across great distances include advanced optical local-area networking technology, videoconferencing wares and collaboration tools from various vendors.

For example, one Telework demo showcased a video collaboration in which a participant from the Tulane School of Medicine in New Orleans made use of whiteboard capabilities and video clips.

The lab was able to amass the technology components necessary to build such telework solutions thanks to $3.4 million in federal funding garnered largely through Wolf's efforts.

Next, Software Productivity Consortium executives will focus on business and economic studies, including matrices that can be used to measure productivity gains associated with telework.

Jones is a freelance writer based in Vienna, Va.

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