DOD gets on the telework bus

GSA study reveals civilian progress is slow

As the Defense Department braces for massive changes from pending base closures and realignments, officials see telework as a saving grace that could soften the blow for their workforce.

Although the rest of the government has yet to fully embrace telecommuting, Defense officials are implementing pilot programs and discussing ways to expand existing telework initiatives.

Officials from the Army and the Defense Information Systems Agency said telework is a key ingredient to retaining employees who will be affected by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission's decision last year to close 33 bases and realign 29 others.

And the Marine Corps has embarked on a pilot venture to establish a Virtual Work Environment for its Combat Development Command (MCCDC) division, located in Quantico, Va. If the program succeeds, it could serve as a model for the rest of the service's workforce, officials said.

'I know the Marine Corps leaders are interested in what we're doing here,' said Ronald Simmons, knowledge management officer and technical adviser at the Federal Aviation Administration. Simmons is on detail to build the VWE for the Marines.

But while Defense is moving forward, the rest of the government still is far behind.

For example, a new General Services Administration study concluded that while telework programs cost less than expected, the government has yet to take a centralized approach to establishing telecommuting as a viable option.

The study'a follow-on to a 2002 GSA report on technological barriers'found that agencies are not investing enough to make telework programs more efficient.

'Current teleworkers, therefore, are typically making do with existing outdated equipment and services to work from home,' the study said.

Not included

Most agencies do not include telework in their overall IT planning or program development, the report said, 'so the support for telework programs varies widely.'

Theresa Noll, senior telework program analyst in GSA's Office of Government-wide Policy, said the cost of providing telework access is much smaller than anticipated, while the benefits, if implemented properly, could save agencies a lot.

Noll, who presented the study's results at a Telework Town Hall Meeting in Washington sponsored by the Telework Exchange of Alexandria, Va., said an agency with 50,000 teleworkers could spend $15.6 million on implementing telework programs over a three-year period. But the agency could save about $36 million over the same period in rent and facilities costs.

'These are all big savings, big benefits,' Noll said.

The Defense initiatives are perfect examples of how telework, if implemented properly and embraced by top-level management, can not only save money, but improve morale and keep certain workers employed, even if their job is being relocated.

Mark Fuhring, assistant deputy chief of staff for personnel at the Army's Communications Electronics Lifecycle Management Command, said teleworking programs will let many employees at Fort Monmouth, N.J., one of the bases set to be closed, keep their jobs.

Fuhring said the Fort Monmouth closure will result in the relocation of about 3,900 employees to Aberdeen, Md.'and there is concern that a majority of the workers will not want to leave their homes.

But by offering certain employees the option of working from home several days a week'and commuting to Maryland once or twice'Fuhring said many of them will likely stay with their jobs.

'We see telework as the most effective way' of retaining our workforce, he said.

BRAC decisions also are impacting DISA's headquarters, forcing the agency to leave Arlington, Va., for Fort Meade, Md. Although the new location is only 26 miles from Arlington, Jack Penkoske, DISA's director of manpower, personnel and security, said the move is a big concern.

Penkoske said 75 percent of DISA's employees live in Northern Virginia and are not happy about facing an undoubtedly longer and more stressful commute.

'For those who live around here,' Penkoske said at the Town Hall Meeting, 26 miles is 'a different world.'

In preparation for the move, Penkoske said, DISA established a telework 'SWAT team' that has focused on training and educating the agency's workforce and managers on how to implement an effective telework policy.

In fact, DISA already has altered its IT procurement mix by purchasing new laptops instead of desktops when a technology refresh is needed, he said.

The agency also is mulling over different telework arrangements, including working from other DISA locations in the area or other federal and/or GSA centers, he said.
DISA has started letting some employees telework two days a week, and Penkoske hopes that the agency will boost that to five days a week.

A quantum leap

'It was a quantum leap to go from one day a pay period to one day a week, to two days a week,' he said.

Meanwhile, the Marine Corps also is moving forward with its program to establish a virtual working environment that will let employees log into their 'office' wherever they are, be it at home, on vacation or on a train.

Simmons'who built the FAA Knowledge Services Network platform'said MCCDC leadership has embraced the project more quickly than he anticipated.

For instance, it took three years to build the FAA program, with Simmons bringing online about 50 users a month. At Quantico, it took only three weeks to bring 300 people online.

Simmons developed KSN by using Microsoft SharePoint and Office software. Essentially, a user logs into the system and is directed to a central page that serves as a virtual office. The page shows which other users are online, and each link serves as a door to another 'office.'

A user can visit an office or check out a series of tasks or message boards that detail upcoming projects, present tasks andprovide other data on internal tasks.
The magic is not so much in the technology as it is in getting management and employees to embrace it, and get used to logging in remotely, he said.

'What happens in this brave new world is that you change people's behaviors,' Simmons said at the Town Hall Meeting.

He said the technology should not be considered telework; rather, it 'blurs the line' because users can log in from anywhere, even if they are, in fact, in the office.

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