Snowfuggedaboudit: Practical experience reveals telework isn't as easy as it sounds

The snowstorm that paralyzed the Washington metropolitan area in December 2009 was widely considered to be the first major test of telework and continuity-of-operations plans in the era of ubiquitous connectivity. At the time, no one suspected that a second opportunity was only weeks away, but the double wallop of two major snowstorms just days apart in mid-February provided it.

Although the federal government was officially closed for four of the five days of the week of Feb. 8, many employees stayed on the job, connecting from home. So did employees of contractors and other businesses that serve the government.

Now that things are slowly returning to normal -- although the massive piles of plowed snow lining many streets will remain there for weeks -- many people who teleworked are now contemplating how they might have done better.

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"The biggest lesson on telework was that those who do it regularly did fine during the big shutdown, but those who don't tended to have problems with the configuration of their setup at home," said Jon Eisenberg, a manager at the National Academies, a nonprofit organization that provides scientific advice to agencies. " There are many things that can go wrong, from routers that block [virtual private network] connections to key software missing on computers. For those who regularly connect remotely, these problems have been resolved. But for those connect rarely, these problems weren't solved and were show-stoppers. Worse, with the closure, normal help-desk service wasn't available to fix the problems."

Working from home during a major event brings its own set of problems. While they're trying to work, grown-ups are also dealing with children who are out of school, shoveling out their cars and protecting their houses. "Telework isn't a panacea when the daycare is closed or the nanny is snowed out," wrote Helen Mosher, social media strategist for AFCEA, on Twitter.

Several readers posted comments suggesting that agency policies -- and, more importantly, actual practices -- are often out of step with their rhetoric.

One reader, reacting to the story "Government reopens while feds talk telework in the aftermath of blizzard," wrote that offices in the Environmental Protection Agency have all their employees signed up in their telework plans so that it looks like the agency offers a great deal of flexibility. But, the reader went on, "In fact,it is more than strongly discouraged by management and it more likely than not denied on a regular basis. Even doing it on a periodic basis is hard to get approval for. EPA should be leaders in telework since it is supposed to be beneficial for the environment, save government energy and infrastructure costs."

Anyone who wants to take another stab at teleworking during a snowstorm may have a chance soon: The Washingon Post's Capital Weather Gang says there's the possibility of another one early next week.

About the Author

Technology journalist Michael Hardy is a former FCW editor.


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