Telework gets new support

Telework gets new support

OPM's Mallie Burruss acknowledges the hurdles to teleworking, but says it will catch on.

In wake of attacks, OPM encourages agencies to explore their options

Marjorie Adams, a full-time program manager at the Agriculture Department, works 40 hours a week but battles suburban traffic only three days.

Thanks to teleworking, she has more time to spend with her children, go to church, and balance work and life'things she said many government employees have a hard time doing.

Adams praised the convenience of telework, saying, 'I hold conferences, I have e-mail. My customers have no idea where I am''only that they can get in touch with her when they need to.

Teleworking initiatives have taken root in the government but have been slow to grow, despite a congressional directive to offer telework options for nearly all employees by 2004.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the idea is is getting an additional push. The Office of Personnel Management recently issued a memo encouraging agencies in the New York and Washington areas 'to make optimum use of personnel flexibilities such as telework and alternative work schedules.'

OPM said the reasons for encouraging telework range from easing traffic congestion in those metropolitan areas to arranging a schedule that helps employees affected by the attacks cope with trauma. The memo pointed out, however, that a telework or alternative work schedule should be balanced. OPM warned against isolating workers from fellow employees or the work place.

Although teleworking isn't widespread in government, there are plenty of examples of how it can work.

Adams, the departmental work life program manager at Agriculture, has been working partly from home for the past seven years. She serves on the interagency Telework Issues Working Group that last month launched a federal telework policy Web site, at www.telework.gov.

The site posts policy guidance for setting up programs and suggestions for 77 management concerns about teleworking. It also posts union agreements and links to sites such as that of the International Telework Association's Washington chapter.

OPM and the General Services Administration jointly oversee the telework.gov site, which OPM built.

Slow to accept

The foremost barrier to telework acceptance has been managers' resistance to losing control over employees, Adams said, echoing the findings of a recent OPM study (see related story, this page).

But that concern could be misplaced, according to Mallie Burruss, an OPM work life program specialist. 'If you hire a contractor, you don't track that contractor every day,' Burruss said. 'You don't know what they do every day. What you're concerned about is the end product.'

She said another concern is the cost of supplying home office equipment for workers who need access to e-mail and agency files.

Adams said Agriculture's seven mission areas operate 23 offices across the country, and each area is in charge of its own telework policy.

Proponents say they hope the telework.gov site will overcome some policy barriers.

'There is that common theme of managerial resistance,' said Billy Michael, telework program analyst in GSA's Office of Governmentwide Policy. Managers fear the lack of information security in home offices, he said.

Agencies with teleworking policies in place include the Energy Department, GSA, OPM and the Patent and Trademark Office. A few offices at other agencies also have plans.

About 45,000 federal employees are teleworking at least one day a week, Burruss said. In 1998, when OPM first issued its guidelines, there were 25,000. 'I'm sure it's going to go up,' she said.

GSA, a longtime proponent of telecommuting, operates 18 telework centers. Several other agencies also have centers. Most are in the traffic-choked metropolitan Washington area, many within libraries.

Burruss said a teleworking policy, besides helping current employees, attracts potential employees who are disabled but can work from a computer at home.

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