Telework Lessons from the Feds

Ann All
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Six Tips on Introducing a Telework Program

Important tips to ensure your telecommuting program is a success.

Not quite two months ago much of the country was being blanketed with snow, which probably had legislators patting themselves on the back for passing the Telework Enhancement Act, which requires federal agencies to step up their telework efforts. This time it's ice (up next: locusts) that is giving folks an incentive to work from home rather than venturing out onto dangerous roads and into an office. As Federal News Radio reports, the Office of Personnel Management gave federal workers the OK to stay at home today to avoid the expected freezing rain.


Telework's star appears to be rising, with online employment portal FlexJobs noting that telecommuting job opportunities in the U.S. grew nearly 400 percent in the past three years. Not only that, but the number of young people seeking telecommuting and flexible jobs rose 181 percent during the same period. Eighty-two percent of Fortune magazine's 100 best companies to work for in 2011 offer telecommuting opportunities to workers.


Interestingly, employee recruitment doesn't appear in a list of telework benefits included in a report titled "Implementing Telework: Lessons Learned from Four Federal Agencies," written by Scott P. Overmyer, a professor and director of the MSIS Program at Baker College's Center for Graduate Studies. He does list improved employee retention as a benefit, noting an unnamed Denver company cut its turnover rate from 60 percent to 0 percent by initiating a telework program.


Overmyer also cites a Booz Allen Hamilton study that finds lots of potential cost savings for federal agencies, though its figures are based on scenarios in which half of employees in very large organizations (50,000 to 100,000 employees) telework. Yet just 102,900 of the 1.9 million federal employees now regularly telework, according to a Federal Computer Week article.


Author John Klossner is critical of the Obama administration's goal to increase the number of federal teleworkers to 150,000 in 2011, saying "if the people in charge of the space program had thought this way, they would have encouraged getting a man on the moon by having aspirants go to the top of the Sears Building." He writes:

Unfortunately, the feds' approach to teleworking is echoing their timeliness on other technology issues-"we'll get right to work on teleworking standards as soon as we finish those fax machine regs"-leaving the workforce to figure out a way to make their federal employee lives reflect the world they live in outside the office, with confusing results.

Sadly, Klossner's remarks on technology ring true. According to a recent Forrester Research report on government workers in North America and Europe, governments are lagging the private sector in providing mobility-friendly technology options to its workers. An InformationWeek article about the report says only 9 percent of respondents use mobile phones at work and 11 percent use laptops. One in three respondents say their technology at home is better than at work, and just 45 percent said they were satisfied with work force technologies.


As daunting as the technology challenges are, however, cultural barriers appear to be a bigger issue. Overmyer's report cites several studies that indicate management resistance to telework is pretty widespread in federal agencies.


He provides four case studies of successful telework programs at government agencies that offer some suggestions that may help in overcoming management objections. (The case studies also include good advice on technology choices and information on agencies' return on investment.)


From the case studies:

At the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), the senior manager assigned a "SWAT team" to examine telework practices in agencies outside DISA and make recommendations on policy, equipment and implementation. The team was given a time frame of just 60 days, since the agency had stated a clear desire to move forward quickly. Training is an ongoing part of DISA's telework program, which includes a list of telework training requirements for all personnel. Most of the training can be done online.


Training is also emphasized at the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), where instruction for both workers and managers covers security-oriented "Rules of the Road," communication, managing and setting clear expectations for performance. USPTO provided clear documentation, including telework agreements and guidelines and asset management guidelines.


The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) provides occasional telework opportunities even for employees who are not able to telework on a regular basis, which likely cuts down on resentment levels. Employees annually submit a signed Telework Agreement and Home Safety Self-Certification to their managers. The FDIC encourages managers to try telework themselves, in hopes of converting reluctant managers into supporters.


Managers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) were encouraged to try small pilot programs. Even if an employee is allowed to telework only one day per pay period in the beginning, the pilots demonstrated to managers that teleworkers can be effective and productive.


Based on the case studies, Overmyer lists six key success factors for telework:

  • Support from top management
  • Clear written policies and agreements
  • Training for employees and managers
  • Effective performance measures
  • Evaluations based on performance, not presence
  • An inclusive work model that makes an effort to include remote workers in team communications

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