Can Feds Set a Telework Example for Private Sector?

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It's only been about three months since "Snowmageddon" essentially shut down the nation's capitol for several days, stranding many federal workers at home and unable to do their jobs. While some of the federal government's 270,000 employees tried to accomplish some tasks using e-mail, phone calls, the Web and Twitter, few of them were able to really get much done since they lacked the technical and management support for true telework.


In contrast, I spent several days hunkered down at my keyboard at home conducting business as usual, as did many of my coworkers. For many of us, telework is a regular part of our routines. So as soon as we saw the weather and traffic reports, we went into our home offices, signed on to the network and got down to business.


I speculated -- as did other folks -- that this natural disaster might help federal agencies overcome what has been a stubborn resistance to telecommuting. Telework is also seen as one of the options that would appeal to younger employees, a demographic federal agencies desperately want to attract to replace the waves of older workers expected to retire over the next few years.


Still, skepticism about telecommuting dies hard. As the Washington Post reports, legislation that would have expanded federal telework options fell nine votes short of passage in the House of Representatives. It could be reconsidered later in the year, but that seems somewhat unlikely with big issues such as immigration reform looming on the horizon.


The story cites figures from the Office of Personnel Management, which found only about 5 percent of the 61 percent of federal workers who are eligible to telework do so on a regular basis. The agency's director, John Berry, has been a major proponent of telework.


While the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the House bill would cost $30 million over five years, the bill's sponsors say taxpayers would ultimately save money, since federal employees could remain productive during events like snowstorms. (And more mundane crises like sick kids, I'd add.) Chief sponsor Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) said the bill would "bolster the federal workforce, improve traffic in the D.C. area, and reduce carbon emissions -- all in one fell swoop."


Similar legislation is also being considered by the Senate, according to the Washington Post story. Under both bills, employees could telework only if doing so would not affect agency operations. The bills bar workers who handle secure or classified materials or information or who perform tasks that cannot be performed remotely from teleworking. Security is a major concern for federal employers. As I noted in a post about an earlier effort to require federal agencies to boost numbers of telecommuting employees, 42 percent of government IT folks rated security as the top telecommuting-related worry, vs. 27 percent of private-sector IT pros. (The earlier effort was approved by the House, but died in the Senate.)


As someone who has worked remotely for more than a dozen years, spending anywhere from 20 percent to 100 percent of a given work week at home rather than in the office, it's hard for me to understand why telework legislation can't seem to get anywhere. Still, as Wayne Rash wrote earlier this year on our CTO Edge site, the feds are ahead of the private sector on telework initiatives. The biggest barrier to telework, faced by both government agencies and private companies, is a perceived lack of management control. As Rash wrote:

"Managers want their workers where they can keep an eye on them. In the process, they waste their company's money, burden their employees with long commutes and high expenses, and reduce their own productivity and increase their exposure to disasters.

I've dealt with managers like that. It can be a tough hurdle. Let's hope the feds can set a good example for the rest of us.