D.C. snow day could be telework learning experience

It's no surprise that heavy snow leads to the federal government's shut-down. In the first day or two after a major snowstorm, roads are treacherous, and many people can't even get out of their driveways as they wait for plow crews to get to residential streets. When two feet of snow cover the region, as it did today following the weekend's storm, the closure of federal offices is all but guaranteed.

But there's a new aspect to federal closure now: telework. When the Office of Personnel Management issued its order closing the government for Dec. 21, it specified that most employees would get paid leave. However, telework employees might have to work, depending on their individual telework agreements, under the terms of the order.

Telework is still a relatively new phenomenon in the federal government and agency leaders are still learning how to incorporate it in their plans. Federal managers should take advantage of snow day closings of the federal government as informal tests to assess how effective teleworking is for a given agency or government organization, and to see what opportunities might exist to improve, said Steve O’Keefe, executive director of the Telework Exchange, a public-private partnership that promotes telework.

With unanticipated days off, more federal managers may be trying teleworking for the first time, O’Keefe suggested. But to be successful, it needs to be planned for, and agencies need to develop best practices and incorporate lessons learned from experience on a regular basis, he said.

“A lot of managers who don’t telework on a daily basis are teleworking today, and they can see the opportunities,” O’Keefe said. “This is obviously not a disaster-type environment, but the value of telework pays dividends every day--not just from a business continuity perspective but from a productivity perspective. Hopefully, today’s experience will give managers a better line of sight to the value of this.”

With planning being conducted for continuity of operations and flu pandemics, brief teleworking experiences such as snow days could have a positive effect, he added. “We need to embrace the experience we have today as a test, and we can learn from it,” O’Keefe said.

For example, the managers can see whether the teleworking infrastructure they have, the bandwidth and network connections, is adequate. There also will be feedback on how planning can help boost productivity while teleworking.

According to an OPM study released in August 2009, the federal government reported about 103,000 teleworkers in 2008, or about 9 percent of the eligible population. Forty-eight agencies reported an increase in their overall telework numbers compared to previous years..

On Dec. 16, Rep. Rob Wittman ( R-Va.)  introduced the Telework Tax Incentive Act to reduce traffic congestion and increase worker productivity. If enacted, it would allow eligible workers an annual tax credit of up to $1,000 for teleworking expenses. Employers also would be eligible for a tax credit if an employee teleworks at least 75 days a year.

“Adding more cars to the road is not viable for the environment or our infrastructure; teleworking can bring some relief to this issue", Wittman said in a statement.

In a related development, federal unions recently wrote to the White House asking for input into federal teleworking policies. A coalition of seven union organizations on Nov. 10 suggesting that federal teleworking should be more widely used. They suggested that unions ought to be involved in formulating telework standards and policies.

“Unfortunately, the many positives of a healthy telework program have not resulted in the ability of most federal workers to enjoy this benefit,” the unions wrote.

About the Authors

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Federal Computer Week.

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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Reader Comments

Tue, Feb 16, 2010

At our agency, they also are very reluctant to 'grant' telecommuting privileges (and I do regard it as a privilege, given that I've heard some staff refer to it as a 'day off'?!). My manager has no problem with 4-5 employees who routinely gather for 2 hour coffee klatches in their offices or out in the hallway, but is very reluctant when a professional indicates they want to work with the door shut (due to the noise level), let alone, work from home on a project that requires concentration. With the storm approaching, I contacted some higher-ups about the idea of using this as a learning opportunity, among other things suggesting that staff contact our IT about setting up remote access. One senior person commented 'no one can get that to work anyway.' (I could.) We have a pandemic workgroup but thus far have been stalled in efforts to get employees and managers to think about getting set up to work 'in the event--for instance, making sure they are set up in terms of the remote access, understand various tools that would support remote work, and have thought about the kinds of work they could do from home. Even staff who don't normally telecommute may have projects they would love to get their teeth into if the opportunity presented itself. However, aside from our senior-level people not trusting the whole idea of telecommuting, we also have the problem that many of our employees (including SES level) are pretty unskilled even in using powerpoint, excel, etc. let alone using internet resources. I am also not sure if Union contracts at some agencies would impact whether broad-scale telecommuting could be enacted during events such as last week's storms; but if an event necessitated longer-term 'social distancing,' this might be of interest in justifying employees continue to be paid.

Tue, Feb 9, 2010

So, now my sensitive personal information is flying all over the freakin internet even more than it is. Outstanding.

Mon, Dec 28, 2009 Avid Teleworker

I love the privilege of being allowed to telework several times a week. However, there are several items at work here… I believe our president needs to give this topic some more attention since he appears to be tech-savvy. The ROI opportunities, if the appropriate documentation and security measures are in place, are monumental. The main point here is that businesses (federal, public or private) will attract and retain more employees if they embrace teleworking as a standard instead of shying away from it because of the Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) factor or when contracts actually support telework as a viable and billable option.

Mon, Dec 28, 2009

Telework won't be allowed on a wide spread basis until it's a mandate from the top. Even then, many managers will only approve telework for the poorest candidates so they can point to these failures as proof that telework is a bad idea. Currently, many managers base their telework policy on old rumors of lazy employees. They want to "keep an eye" on everyone and any change in the old "push push push" management technique is dismissed without consideration. In an age of globalization, when most teams are scattered around the country, telework doesn't lessen the quality or quantity of work. In many cases it can improve it by removing an employee from a noisy, distracting office environment.

Mon, Dec 28, 2009 FedSup DC

I encourage telework but many managers in the government do not. There is a belief that the teleworker goofs off rather than works. I find just the opposite. If there is a non-working teleworker usually the problem exists in the office as well. I am not allowed to telework myself. As a manager I work remotely all of the time at off hours, which has become an expected activity although there is no compensation for doing the work. Even when I have attempted to take just a partial telework day when I was unable to come into the office, I am told even after working that I must take some form of leave. The senior management is more opposed than the staff and the management is less capable. They do not consider telework to be a viable option even for disaster and pandemic planning. It is very frustrating for those of us that see the benefits and required to work without compensation.

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