Study: Managers slow telework

Study: Managers slow telework

'It seems we're getting the worst of all worlds.'

'I am concerned about negligible progress in the federal sector.'

Six months past its deadline, the government has fallen far short of its mandated goal of making telecommuting available to one-quarter of its work force, and inflexible managers are to blame, a House panel heard early last month.

An April study by the Office of Personnel Management found that only 2.6 percent of federal workers telecommute one or more days a week.

'In a nutshell, the biggest challenge to establishing telecommuting programs in private and public sectors is management concerns,' said Robert E. Robertson, director of education, work force and income security issues for the General Accounting Office.

Robertson and others testified before the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Technology and Procurement Policy on Sept. 6. The topic was agency compliance with a requirement in last year's Transportation appropriations bill that agencies by April give at least 25 percent of eligible employees the option of working from home or other remote sites, followed by an additional 25 percent in each of the next three years. The law doesn't require that workers telecommute, only that they have the opportunity.

Subcommittee chairman Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) said, 'Some federal employees still report confusion about their agencies' policies, and others do not even know if telework is an option.'

He blamed managerial resistance.

But OPM found that the percentage of employees who telework at least one day a week has nearly doubled since 1998, from 1.4 percent to 2.6 percent. Teresa M. Jenkins, director of OPM's Office of Workforce Relations, said that is probably an undercount because there are no reliable methods of tracking telecommuters.

'I believe agencies are making more progress than is reflected in the numbers,' she said. 'Substantial advances require significant cultural changes within organizations. This is a long-term endeavor.'

Just how long is reflected in the findings of a GAO study last spring on barriers to telecommuting. According to Robertson, management concerns about telecommuting have changed little since a similar study in 1997. Managers still worry that their employees are not suited to working off-site. They worry about security of sensitive data and about the cost of providing resources outside the office.

Mark Straton, president of global marketing of the Siemens Enterprise Network Services division of Siemens AG of Munich, called the security issue 'bogus.'

'That's an excuse, not a reason,' he said. Technology is available to adequately protect remote hardware and software and to secure remote access to agency networks.

As for finding reliable workers and paying for the infrastructure, Straton said his company has seen costs fall and productivity increase through telework.

But the government has so far not seen any cost savings.

The General Services Administration's Public Buildings Service operates 15 telework centers in the metropolitan Washington area where federal, state and local agencies and private companies can rent fully equipped space, said David L. Bibb, deputy associate administrator for the Office of Real Property in GSA's Office of Governmentwide Policy.

The telecenters cost GSA $13.2 million to set up and equip and showed a loss of $1.8 million in fiscal 2000, Bibb said. The 55 percent occupancy rate for the 326 workstations has been decreasing over the years.

'It seems we're getting the worst of all worlds,' Davis said. Agencies realize no savings on office space because the teleworking initiative hasn't caught on, and the telecenters cost money. 'So it's a net loss,' he said.

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), said her constituents who commute to federal jobs in the Washington area find it difficult to get permission to telework. A telecenter in Jefferson County in her district has a utilization rate of only 32 percent, she said, and about 70 workers are mired in the lengthy administrative process of getting approval to go there occasionally.

Battle to telecommute

'Gaining agency approval is an arduous and frustrating process,' she said. 'There remain those who are steadfastly opposed to the practice.'

Jenkins said OPM is aggressively marketing telework to federal agencies and has several initiatives to promote it.

In conjunction with GSA, OPM in June launched an informational Web site (see related story) and is working with an interagency group to develop an Internet-based training module.

A telework leadership seminar for top agency officials is scheduled for this month, to be followed next month by a satellite broadcast for federal employees nationwide.

A conference for agency supervisors and managers will take place in January.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said the traffic congestion caused by federal commuters is painful for her constituents.

'I am concerned about negligible progress in the federal sector,' she said. 'We are the poster child for a transportation crisis, and we are sitting on our thumbs, doing nothing about it. Traffic problems are sapping the energy and money of the region.'

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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