Telework in transit
Some agencies embrace telework for recruitment and COOP, but others yet to make the connection
- By Patrick Marshall
- Sep 28, 2008
The next time you're feeling down, you might want to pick up the phone and call one of the telework coordinators at federal agencies. Their sense of optimism and purpose is infectious.
As they are quick to point out, telework coordinators have a lot of reasons to feel good about their work. Telework saves money, helps the environment, increases productivity, is popular with employees and is the bedrock of many organizations' continuity-of-operations (COOP) plans. It's hard to find a downside.
Advocates point to the growing popularity of programs at several federal agencies.
The Labor Department 'last year increased its number of teleworkers by 50 percent,' said Dan Green, deputy associate director of the Office of Personnel Management's Center for Employee and Family Support Policy. Also, the Transportation Department and General Services Administration are 'setting ambitious goals to increase their telework penetration,' he said.
Cindy Auten, general manager of the public/private Telework Exchange, also sees improvement in federal telework programs, particularly at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and Defense Information Systems Agency.
However, 'a lot of the federal government is still kind of working at how they're doing it,' she said.
Many advocates are disappointed with the pace of adoption in the federal sector, which is slow despite the passage of legislation in 2000 aimed at encouraging telework options.
According to a recent survey by CDW Government, the number of federal employees eligible to telework dropped during the past year ' from 52 percent to 40 percent. And the percentage of federal employees who could work remotely if their offices were closed because of disaster dropped from 75 percent in 2007 to 59 percent in 2008.
If telework is so good, what is holding it back? Most experts blame managerial attitudes.
'I think the problem has been in some agencies the midlevel managers have taken the attitude ' and I understand ' that if you can't see the person, they must not be working,' said Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) during an interview on Federal News Radio in August 2007. Wolf was the primary sponsor of legislation in 2000 that required each executive agency to establish a policy to allow eligible employees to telework to the maximum extent possible.
Auten said that despite the fact that as many as 70 percent of federal employees are eligible for at least part-time telework, 'currently, about 10 percent are actually teleworking on a regular and recurring basis.'
'The technology is definitely there. It's the cultural element that takes time in these agencies,' she said. 'Some managers just feel uncomfortable having employees work outside the office. I think there have been some significant improvements in the federal government, but I also think there's a long way to go,' she said.Picking up the pace
Josh Sawislak, senior adviser to the administrator at GSA, said the slow pace of implementation is puzzling. 'At the end of last summer, we started to look at that issue,' he said. 'We've had requirements for a number of years, but the numbers throughout government aren't that good. Our administrator decided that the best way to kick-start things was to lead by example.'
GSA ' which, along with OPM, has a policy responsibility for implementing telework in the federal sector ' set an aggressive schedule for training employees and implementing a program. The goal is to get at least 50 percent of GSA employees teleworking at least part time by the end of 2010.
Other agencies have also picked up the pace. Generally, it seems that those with computer-literate employees are leading the way.
Susan Whitney, telework coordinator and labor relations officer at the National Science Foundation, said her agency expanded an underused flexible-workplace program established in 1996 to create its telework program.
As of July, NSF had 756 telework agreements on file. 'That is 54 percent of our employees,' she said.
Having an information technology-savvy staff has helped. 'The NSF workforce is overall a very highly educated workforce,' Whitney said. 'We have a lot of Ph.D.'s. A lot of those people already have state-of-the-art computers that they use and are familiar with. They are familiar with remote working.'
However, the program also covers employees who aren't familiar with telework. 'We weren't going to exclude anybody right off the bat,' Whitney said. 'You had to be able to show that you could do your duties off-site. Everybody we found does have some [eligibility]. Maybe they can't do four days a week off-site, but they can do one or two days usually.'
USPTO has also been successful in getting its employees working remotely.
'We started our telework initiative in March of 1997 with the Trademark Work-at-Home program,' said Danette Campbell, USPTO's telework coordinator. 'The program began as a feasibility project with 18 teleworkers, all of whom were trademark- examining attorneys. Now, 11 years later, this particular program has 257 examining attorneys, which represents 85 percent of the eligible examining attorneys.'
Telework has been a major enticement in recruiting patent attorneys, and 'our surveys have indicated that we have seen about a 10 percent across-the-board increase in production,' Campbell said. 'But in addition to that, we are hiring large numbers of patent examiners on a yearly basis. Even though we are hiring these huge numbers of examiners, we have not had to secure any additional real estate to accommodate these folks. Nor have we had to secure any additional parking spaces. That's huge.'
The recent blossoming of telework projects is the result of technology and economic drivers, proponents say.
Telework used to mean remotely accessing office networks and often having to go through laborious procedures to set up virtual private networks to ensure security. But workers can now access shared work sites via the Web. Some agencies also support videoconferencing, voice over IP, instant messaging and other workgroup tools.Motives and means
For example, USPTO uses a Nortel Networks multimedia communication server that delivers telephone, instant messaging, whiteboarding and Web collaboration sessions. Campbell said the agency uses the Nortel server for meetings of up to 50 people. For larger meetings, USTPO uses Adobe Acrobat Connect, a Web-based tool that can handle meetings of 500 people.
Meanwhile, rising energy prices have made commuting more expensive for employees and office space more costly. 'Anyone who has ever driven in Washington traffic will immediately understand why there are a lot of people motivated to participate in this program,' GSA's Sawislak said.
The desire for greater flexibility is also a motivator. 'We see telework as a recruiting and retention tool, particularly for new employees who have strong work/life balance issues,' Green said. 'For example, agencies are beginning to advertise job vacancies as telework-friendly.'
Recent requirements for agencies to develop COOP plans for dealing with manmade and natural disasters, including a potential outbreak of pandemic flu, have also helped spur the adoption of telework.
Pam Budda, telework coordinator at Labor, said the big push at her agency resulted from COOP planning. ''In terms of the big concentrated effort, that really has surrounded our pandemic influenza planning,' she said. 'The original [pandemic flu] plan was signed in 2006. In August of 2006, we implemented a comprehensive telework exercise process.'
'On the COOP side of the house, the idea of people working from home, using computers from home, using a telephone from home, has always been a part of Labor's continuity-of-operations plan,' said Betty Hoskins, Labor's COOP program manager. 'Most of the agencies have included telework as some portion of their COOP plan,' and some of them rely almost entirely on telework for COOP.
For other agencies, such as DISA, telework was an obvious solution to a specific problem.
'We are using [telework] as the cornerstone of our recruitment and retention efforts,' said Aaron Glover, special assistant to the director of manpower, personnel and security at DISA. 'We have been selected to relocate from our headquarters here in Arlington [Va.] to Fort Meade, Md. It's about 26 miles, but with the commute in this area, that's like going to another country. Seventy-five percent of our workforce lives in Northern Virginia. We'd certainly like to take as many of them with us as possible.'
So far, 2,300 of DISA's 4,500 employees have taken advantage of the agency's telework program. Employees primarily access networks via a VPN, but Glover said officials plan to add voice-over-IP capabilities after the move to Maryland is complete.Still hurdles to overcome
Despite encouraging trends, telework coordinators are aware that there is still resistance at some agencies, often from managers.
Before moving to NSF, Whitney had a job at GSA addressing telework issues. 'Initially, when we had done our telework policy over there, we had not given it to supervisors or managers,' she said. 'That I found to be a mistake because sometimes you get resentment if you have the supervisor who can't telework and you have employees wanting to do it. '
Glover said executive support is the key to the success of DISA's program. 'As in any new change in an organization, there was some initial resistance, but the good thing is that we had strong leadership from the top,' he said. 'That helped convert some of the reluctant supervisors. Then, as more people started participating, I think more and more of the managers started realizing that it really does work.'
In addition, telework coordinators stress the importance of training employees and testing the program. Budda said Labor conducts frequent telework exercises as part of its COOP plan, and those exercises have helped refine in the broader telework program.
Although training is important for ensuring productivity, it is crucial for ensuring continuity of operations at times of crisis.
'The hardest thing in a continuity situation [would be having] a bunch of people who almost instantaneously and often without notice have to work in an alternate location,' Sawislak said. 'Not only do they have to work at an alternate location, they have to work with other people who are working in an alternate location. There are certain things that as you work with people remotely, you get better at.'
Security is another significant concern. Telework coordinators agree that the technology is available to ensure secure connectivity, but appropriate policies might not be in place at all agencies.
'Bring some technology to bear, [such as] encryption and VPNs,' Green said. 'Some of it is simple business practices, such as setting requirements for setting up a home office and providing government computers rather than using home computers.'
Auten said that because telework programs offer formal training to employees, they can actually enhance rather than detract from agencies' security efforts.
'Teleworkers are more trained and have more secure operations than folks who are not in an official telework program, but who have the devices to work outside the office,' she said.