Will 'Snowmageddon' Thaw Federal Resistance to Telework?

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When I've written about telecommuting in the past, the discussion has often focused around improving work/life balance, broadening employee recruitment and saving money by reducing real estate. But a telecommuting strategy can also keep employees at work during natural disasters, doing their jobs from home instead of the office.


Last spring IT Business Edge's Carl Weinschenk encouraged companies worried about a flu outbreak to create telecommuting plans. I just spent the past two days hunkered down at my keyboard at home, since my son's school canceled classes. (We had 6 inches of snow. Not a big deal in Wisconsin or Minnesota, but it sure is in Kentucky.) Other than some distractions from Nerf gun warfare after I took in two of my son's friends for a bit so their parents could hit the office for meetings, it worked out fine. But then I usually work at least one day a week at home, via our company's VPN, and have been doing so for years.


I had lots of company this week, with federal workers in snowbound Washington, D.C., forced to stay home. Though legislation passed in 2008 required federal agencies to create programs that allow eligible employees to spend at least 20 percent of the time teleworking, budget and security concerns have kept down the numbers of federal employees who telecommute on a regular basis.


That's a shame. I know from my own experience it's much easier for folks who are used to telecommuting to do it when circumstances force the issue.


An InformationWeek article cites Office of Personnel and Management (OPM) estimates that government office closures are costing about $100 million a day in lost productivity, with a majority of the 270,000 federal workers in the nation's capitol forced to stay home. The OPM's Web site, OPM.gov, went down early in the week as federal employees went to the site trying to determine whether they should go to their offices and overtaxed the servers. OPM eventually redirected site traffic to manage the load.


The article mentions Martha Johnson, the new administrator of the General Services Administration, being sworn into office by phone, and federal CIO Vivek Kundra conducting a teleconference with journalists to discuss the federal IT budget for fiscal 2011. But it doesn't sound as if workers in the trenches are accomplishing as much. It mentions federal employees using e-mail, phone calls, the Web and Twitter to get things done.


in September, I wrote about a report that John Berry, head of the OPM, was looking at Google and other Silicon Valley companies for ideas on how to make federal workplaces more attractive to employees. Specifically, Berry was interested in improving telecommuting programs. Steve O'Keeffe, executive director of Telework Exchange, a telework advocacy group, told The Washington Post this week's weather might help his organization's cause to help promote telecommuting.


In August an OPM report found management resistance to teleworking was one of the biggest obstacles to its spread in the federal government. But managers stuck at home out of necessity this week might now be convinced it's possible to accomplish tasks away from the office. Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, said mistrust of telework is a sign of the government's broader inability to manage performance. He said:

If you know what good work is and you can hold people accountable, it shouldn't matter if they are in eye or ear shot or at home or in the office.

The Post story touts the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, where more than 80 percent of eligible staff do at least some telework, as a success story. The trademark side of the agency reported production at 85 percent of normal levels on Monday and Tuesday, when the government was officially closed. Said David Kappos, the agency's director:

At a time when the federal government has been shut down due to inclement weather, our agency has been able to maintain a high level of productivity due to our telework program.

President Obama's proposed budget for fiscal 2011 (the same one discussed by Kundra during his teleconference) calls for increasing the number of federal employees who are eligible to telework by 50 percent, from the 2009 figure of 102,900, the article notes.

While many federal agencies don't have formal telecommuting programs, that doesn't mean employees aren't doing it, says Chuck Wilsker, president and CEO of the Telework Coalition, in a Federal News Radio interview. When he speaks to groups of federal employees and asks how many participate in a telework program, 10 percent to 30 percent usually say they do, Wilsker says. But when he asks how many work at home in the morning before office hours, in the evening after hours or over the weekend, the number invariably rises to almost 100 percent.