Mobile workers with laptop and smartphone

BYOD is changing the telework picture and advocacy group's name

The availability of technology that gives employees access to agency resources from almost anywhere is changing the discussion of telework in government.

“The future of telework in government will eventually just be work,” said Cindy Auten, general manager of the organization formerly called the Telework Exchange. Jobs no longer need be defined by where they are done.

As lines are blurred between home and office, and personal and professional equipment, the defining characteristic of the workforce today is mobility. So after eight years of advocating for telework in the federal workplace, the Telework Exchange has changed its name to the Mobile Work Exchange.

The Mobile Work Exchange is a public-private effort that provides research and education about the benefits and challenges of working outside the traditional office. The government has promoted telework for more than a decade, and the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 has codified it by requiring executive branch agencies to identify those employees whose jobs can be done outside the office and to set up programs to enable telework on a regular basis. Accurate figures are difficult to come by, but a 2012 Telework Exchange survey of government IT professionals shows that 21 percent are working outside their regular offices at least twice a week.

But other surveys and anecdotal accounts indicate that many workers — maybe as many as 90 percent — do some work outside the office informally, at least checking their e-mail remotely with personal devices. For agency IT managers, this means ensuring security by, for example, using passwords, encryption and lock/wipe software on mobile devices, while avoiding file-sharing apps and limiting the use of other mobile apps.

This new reality underlies the change in name for the Mobile Work Exchange. Teleworkers who work regularly from remote locations no longer can be treated as a distinct class. Telework helped to raise the issue of performance management by federal managers, Auten said, and that management now can be applied to all workers. Teleworkers are a subset of a broader class of mobile workers who might or might not be working under formal telework agreements.

“Technology has changed the way that agencies have looked at mobility,” Auten said. The availability of home broadband Internet connections freed workers from formal satellite offices that were being established in the Washington area a decade ago to support teleworking. Increasingly small and powerful personal devices — smart phones and tablets as well as laptops — now keep workers connected almost continually, in the car while stuck on the Beltway or in coffee shops.

The advantages of this kind of ubiquitous connectivity are evident during severe weather when government operations are able to continue even as traditional community events are interrupted. “The more mobile our workforce is, the better we can remain operational whatever happens tomorrow,” Auten said. In addition to aiding continuity of operations, the ability to use mobile devices for work assists in recruiting and retaining younger workers who expect this mobility in their jobs.

Despite growing acceptance of telework and mobile work, challenges remain. The biggest is cultural, Auten said. Middle management often resists the new environment because it requires methods for measuring performance other than merely taking attendance.

On the technical side, the challenges are “all about security,” Auten said. The technology exists to adequately secure mobile devices and the enterprise resources they access. But ensuring that the safeguards are built into systems and policies needs to be kept in mind, she said. “That is something that is critical.”

About the Author

William Jackson is freelance writer and the author of the CyberEye blog.

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