USDA expands telework access

Some 75 percent of department employees are now elegible to telework.

Scientist in grain field

Some 70 percent of Agriculture employees are now eligible to telework. (Stock image)

The Agriculture Department's effort to move its thousands of employees to a telework program is advancing quickly, and three-quarters of them are now eligible to work under the initiative, according to telework managers.

Mika Cross, who leads work/life and wellness programs at USDA, said about 75 percent of the department's more than 90,000 employees are eligible for telework agreements in 2013, up from just 16,000 eligible employees in 2011.

Speaking at an FCW Executive Briefing on May 30, Cross said USDA managers have embraced the ideas behind the 2010 Telework Enhancement Act requiring federal agencies to establish telework policies, notify employees who are eligible to telecommute and provide them with appropriate training.

Robin Bailey, deputy administrator for management at USDA's Food and Nutrition Service, said telework not only makes employees happier and more productive but can also yield significant savings for the agency -- if telework capabilities are implemented thoughtfully.

"It's a budget driver," he said, and it helps consolidate unused office space across hundreds of the agency's far-flung facilities. The consolidation and office-sharing opportunities that telework has precipitated at USDA has saved millions of dollars, he added.

By working with USDA property managers, IT personnel and human resources staff, Bailey said the agency is seeking to reduce the amount of space per employee from 150 square feet to 135. And in a 2011 essay on USDA's telework efforts, Cross wrote that when real estate, employee turnover, absenteeism and productivity are all taken into account, the program could yield as much as $250 million in annual savings for the agency.

As it reaps the benefits from the policy, USDA has also learned some lessons. The primary one is that telework might not be for everyone. For instance, employees in rural offices who need face-to-face contact with the public are not the best candidates, Cross said. Workers who inspect agricultural facilities are natural telecommuters, however, and already use a broad range of mobile devices in their travels.

Another lesson is that not all offices face the same weather-related issues. That might be obvious, but a strict telework arrangement that is set up for a Washington, D.C., snowstorm might not translate well in the desert southwest, Cross observed. And USDA's offices in rural areas might not have the necessary broadband connections to support effective data transfer, document sharing or teleconferencing.

Adapting to changing technology is another work in progress, Cross and Bailey agreed. "We use all kinds of technology, [including] webcams, tablets and PCs," to facilitate telework, Bailey said. Because USDA comprises 33 agencies and offices, working across the various legacy systems can be a challenge, he added. "Plug-and-play can be difficult," he said. "There's no common platform." He said the key is to get the IT department in the game early and ask it to focus on applications and capabilities.

There are also some subtleties in dealing with management and workforce politics, Bailey said. "We had to talk with unions" as the program moved forward, he said. With the new policy and computers equipped with webcams for teleconferencing, there were some concerns about management "spying" on employees.

And buying technology for diverse agency applications is still a developing area for USDA, Cross said. "That's a hard issue," she admitted.

NOTE: This article has been updated to correct the number of employees now eligible to telework, as well as to clarify estimated annual savings.

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