Telework Still a Work in Progress in Federal Government

Susan Hall

With more than 1 million customers without power after Friday night's storms, federal offices are open today, though workers have the option of taking unscheduled leave or working from home. It might take a week or more for power to be restored to some customers, according to Federal News Radio. (I can commiserate, having gone 11 days without power a few years ago after a wild storm here in Kentucky.) I wonder, though, how people can telework if they have no power.

The Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 sought to encourage working from home, based on the need for continuity in emergencies. It required agencies to develop telework policies, designate a telework coordinator and integrate telework into their emergency operations. It also directed agencies to determine whether employees were eligible to telework. In the Department of Veterans Affairs, for example, only 12 percent of workers have been deemed eligible for telework, since so many are involved in patient care at hospitals, though the VA has come under fire as lagging behind other agencies on the initiative.

When my colleague Ann All wrote about a "Snowmageddon" that shut down federal agencies in 2010, she cited an estimate from the Office of Personnel and Management that government office closures are costing about $100 million a day in lost productivity. She thought the experience might thaw resistance to telework, though so far, telework has been slow to catch on among the feds.

According to a recent poll of 152 federal IT executives by the Telework Exchange, however, 65 percent of federal agencies have "above-average IT programs" to facilitate telework and mobility.

A 2011 OPM report said about 10 percent of the federal work force teleworks, though it cited growth. At many agencies, workers deemed eligible to telework choose not to.

A second Federal News Radio article quotes Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., saying:

We have to change the mindset of a lot of managers. The biggest barrier here is a cultural one.

No doubt some managers still worry that employees not in the office aren't really working, though the best management tactic is to manage the work, not the workers, according to Jim Neighbors in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense, who recently managed the military base-closure process.

And there are problems to be resolved. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, for instance, is investigating why 95 mostly high-grade "virtual" General Services Administration employees, including a dozen supervisors, billed the agency for a total of $750,000 for travel from October 2010 to June 2011, according to Government Executive.

Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry recently told federal managers, however, that they must “establish performance expectations and hold employees accountable."

He is quoted saying,

In short, teleworking requires good management. The technology and the security issues have been resolved. The last piece in the puzzle is management support for maintaining productivity and resilience.

OPM scrapped its own Results-Only Work Environment pilot program, though, which allowed 400 employees to decide where and when they would work, citing unclear goals and inadequate communication between workers and managers, reports. So there's more work to be done all around on making telework actually work in federal government.

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