Support for telecommuters is an uphill ride
- By Jason Miller
- Nov 12, 2002
'From a technology standpoint, it is a massive challenge to provide a high service level of support for this type of program,' says Doug Bourgeois, CIO of the Patent and Trademark Office.
When Congress included Section 359 in the Transportation Department Appropriations Act of 2001, many observers said agencies got the kick in the pants they needed to establish telecommuting policies and start running pilots.
Section 359 of the act, which eventually became Public Law 106-346, required agencies to offer all eligible workers the ability to telecommute by 2004, in increments of 25 percent a year.
But the law did not address the burden of supporting teleworkers, which is the one area many agencies are struggling with.
Many agency CIOs said the costs of sustaining the telecommuter and ensuring adequate computer and data security have limited the extent of telework programs.
'From a technology standpoint, it is a massive challenge to provide a high service level for this type of program,' said Doug Bourgeois, CIO of the Patent and Trademark Office, which has had a telecommuting program since 1997. 'The work the telecommuters perform and the hardware and software tools they use have a dramatic impact on agencies' ability to serve up automated solutions.'
The General Services Administration, which in May 2002 released a report on telework centers, found that the average cost per person working at home is $2,850. It costs agencies about $4,945 per person at one of 18 GSA-sponsored telework centers around the Washington region. Telework centers provide employees with a computer station and connectivity at remote locations. Agencies pay a monthly fee to use the telework center.Congressional interest
Even though many agency programs are new'GSA reported that, as of October 2001, only about 4.3 percent of all eligible employees were telecommuting'Congress is paying attention to telework support. The General Accounting Office is working on a report on the constraints agencies face when implementing a program, said Forrest Kachura, the GAO analyst working on the study.
The National Academy of Public Administration, a nonprofit organization designed to help federal, state and local governments become more efficient, also is developing a report on the same topic for an individual agency, said Myra Howze Shiplett, director of NAPA's Center for Human Resources Management.
GSA's report concluded that the three main obstacles to teleworking were system performance, access to equipment and, to a lesser extent, funding. After issuing the findings, GSA officials are discussing how to address these problems with the CIO Council, said Teresa Jenkins, the Office of Personnel Management's director of Workforce Relations.
'Since OPM has no control over these issues, we have to make sure CIOs understand the long-range implications of not planning for a telework program,' Jenkins said. 'We developed an action plan, and we met with agency telework coordinators about the technology barriers to get their opinion. We now will brief the CIO Council's IT Workforce Committee on our action plan.'
Theresa Noll, GSA's telework program analyst, said involving the CIO, chief financial officer, human resources managers and other senior management leaders from the beginning is one of the most important best practices found in successful programs.
She said CIOs must make sure agencies have the telecommunication infrastructure to support a program.
Sharon Burks, telework program manager for the Defense Information Systems Agency, said DISA put together a team that included IT personnel and employees from other areas to develop policy and create a program. She said the DISA director's chief of staff signed off on the policy and program.
But even with top-level buy-in, nothing can take the place of planning and trial-and-error testing, CIOs and telecommuting experts said.
Joe Hungate, CIO of the Treasury Department's Inspector General Office for Tax Administration, said his office supports almost 400 telecommuters who work outside the office at least three days per week, and more than 900 who telework at least one day a week. He said it took six months of working closely with about 40 employees in a test program to figure out the technology and support needs. Even now, after nearly two years, his office is upgrading or changing the security software and virtual private network devices telecommuters use.
'We had constant monitoring of the employees in the pilot program,' he said. 'We figured out a few things right away, like the employees only need a computer, printer and high-speed Internet connection. We also needed longer help desk hours and the ability to page technicians for specific applications for after-hours help.'
PTO's Bourgeois said his program is in a constant state of fine-tuning, design and engineering. He said getting the five or six custom applications used by trademark attorneys to function well over the WAN was one of their biggest challenges.
'We had countless meetings with the end users and asked for real-time feedback on every problem or challenge,' he said. 'We had to do a lot of work to get these applications to meet our employees' needs.'
Tim Kane, president of the International Telework Association and Council, said agencies can provide several services to make support easier, from online training to developing user manuals to preparing users up front to handle problems.
'So much of the technology teleworkers use is a matter of training employees on how to deal with it when it doesn't work,' said Kane, president and founder of Kinetic Workplace Inc. of Pittsburgh.
Bourgeois said standardizing the desktop PC played a big part in solving many of the support problems. PTO provided telecommuters desktop PCs for home and office use that were configured similarly.
PTO is considering moving to notebook PCs during the next refresh cycle to reduce the cost of support, Bourgeois said. Employees will bring their notebooks to the office for scheduled maintenance or for specific problems instead of a requesting house calls, he said.
Treasury's Hungate agreed that standardizing hardware and software is important.
He said his office gave everyone notebook PCs and docking stations, and system administrators spent anywhere from 15 minutes to three hours with users explaining how the computers work and offering tips on solving common problems.
'It is absolutely essential to have the same computers because having two or three brands would be unworkable,' he said. 'The training also made it easier for the help desk to solve user problems.'
But Kane warned that agencies with large telework programs likely will find it prohibitively expensive to standardize their equipment right away. He also said supporting the custom applications at many agencies causes additional headaches.
Bourgeois said giving users a single point of contact was another important aspect of PTO's program. He said one person took care of administrative authorizations on the back end and made sure that the telecommuter received a notebook PC and printer, and that Verizon Communications Inc. of New York installed their digital subscriber line or other type of Internet connection.
Bourgeois also said he extended the time the help desk was open by two-and-a-half hours to accommodate telecommuters.
Hungate said high-speed Internet connections are important because tasks such as transferring files can take too long with dial-up connections.
As an added incentive, his office pays for the installation and half of the monthly fee to all employees who telework at least three days a week, he said.
'We face daily challenges in terms of systems solutions and we are continually upgrading the system to provide better performance,' Bourgeois said. 'Supporting the teleworker takes a Herculean effort on the part of the IT staff.'