Welles: Telework blahs

Managers are still nervous about off-site work despite positive research results

Few studies send clear signals to government officials that they need to review policies and test the telework waters. Policies about when and where employees can telework may be even more important as different work situations develop.

Research confirms the productivity of teleworkers. Federally sponsored telework centers in Washington, D.C., Virginia and Maryland are offering 30-day freebies to agencies so their employees can test the sites. Office of Personnel Management officials are conducting their annual survey of telework progress, and policies may change once they review the results.

Supervisors must overcome several issues. Loss of control seems to be the biggest concern for managers. For aspiring federal teleworkers, it could be worse. According to a study by Avaya, a communications software and systems provider, compared with their U.S. counterparts, four times as many managers in Russia do not trust their workers to telecommute.

"Managers may think that work is a place you go and not something you do," said Chuck Wilsker, president and chief executive officer of the Telework Coalition, a group that advocates spreading work across many sites. "Disaster avoidance is not having all of your people in one place. You need to have at least 25 [percent to] 30 percent of your people distributed to other locations on any given day."

A federal telework report by another technology provider, CDW Government, found that 73 percent of employees eligible and able to telecommute work a full day or take care of critical work-related items when the government is closed during events such as a snow emergency.

Under one controversial OPM policy, agency officials can require teleworkers to work without additional pay or compensatory time on snow days when the agency is closed.

"What's the difference [when] an agency's employees in Chicago are excused from work for weather or employees in Washington, D.C., are excused for the inauguration, while employees in Kansas City, Denver, L.A., Seattle must go into work as normal?" asked Danny Sadler, who works for the Federal Aviation Administration.

On the other hand, Otto Becker, a technology training specialist at the U.S. Postal Service, wrote me, "For anyone in OPM to suggest or direct that others work without the usual protections and rights of fair labor law and the usual rights of federal workplaces just because their computer is in their bedroom and not in a federal building is abusive."

A contract employee at the National Institutes of Health wrote that when it comes to telework, contractors, who often work alongside federal employees, "fall into some sort of twilight zone limbo state that department heads are not prepared to address, [and] little or no emphasis is placed on teleworking for contractors."

If eligible, you can get a life and experiment with telework at centers in the Washington, D.C., area that are offering a no-cost trial to first-time federal teleworkers and supervisors. The sign-up period ends Sept. 30, visit www.telework.gov for more information.

Welles is a retired federal employee who has worked in the public and private sectors. She lives in Bethesda, Md., and writes about work life topics for Federal Computer Week. She can be reached at judywelles@fcw.com.

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