No pain, no gain in federal teleworking effort

No pain, no gain in federal teleworking effort

Although the federal government officially encourages its workers to get off the highways and telecommute, it lags behind the private sector in percentage of teleworkers.

Panel members at the ComNet trade show in Washington earlier this year blamed managerial resistance, and one said agencies lack an incentive.

'You need to feel some kind of pain in the organization' to overcome inertia, said John M.H. Edwards, president of TeleNetwork Inc. of Potomac Falls, Va. 'The feds don't feel much pain.'

The government has set a goal of making telecommuting possible for 25 percent of workers whose jobs permit it, each year for four years. If that happened, it would reduce urban traffic congestion and pollution, increase employee satisfaction and cut office expenses.

But an Office of Personnel Management study last fall found only 2.6 percent of federal workers are telecommuting at least one day a week.

The General Services Administration's Public Buildings Service operates 15 centers in the metropolitan Washington area where federal, state and other employees can rent fully equipped work space. GSA has reported the occupancy rate at 55 percent for the 326 slots, and falling.

In contrast, the private sector has 10 percent or more of its workers telecommuting in the Washington area, said Gil Weidenfeld, program administrator in the Maryland Transportation Department's planning and capital programming office.

Maryland DOT provides telework consulting services to the state's employers, including the federal government. Weidenfeld blamed administrative inertia for the lack of progress on the federal side.

'The federal government has more bureaucracy and policy,' he said. 'People have enough on their plates without taking on something else.'

Maryland established the consulting program under a 1999 state law that set a goal for 10 percent of state employees to telecommute at least one day a week. The state government now has 700 teleworkers, 200 of them in the Transportation Department, Weidenfeld said.

Federal agencies have shown they can develop effective telecommuting programs if motivated, Edwards said. When the Navy recently moved some offices from Arlington, Va., to Southern Maryland, many employees balked at making the move.

'Lo and behold, they got a teleworking program,' Edwards said.

Panelists said a successful teleworking program must:

  • Set policies for when and where employees can telecommute.

  • stablish guidelines for equipment needed at the remote location and who will provide it.

  • Identify jobs suitable for telecommuting, based on the work rather than the job titles.

  • Document the criteria for eligibility and apply them evenly.

  • Develop metrics for employee performance.

  • Train managers to use the metrics and to manage offsite workers.

  • Educate employees about the requirements.
  • About the Author

    William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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