Big telework savings trumps butts in the seats

Technology, employee expectations and legislation could make it a reality

Despite years of official support and the promise of huge returns on investment, routine telework remains a goal in most agencies, relegated to pilot programs and special situations.

“A lot of the resistance in government is from managers who want to see their employees every day,” said Rod Turk, chief information security officer of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, one of a handful of agencies that is making telework work.

But the butts-in-the-seats paradigm has to change, said John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management. “We’ve got to start practicing what we’re preaching.”

Berry, speaking recently at a Washington conference hosted by the Telework Exchange, said that like it or not, telework already is happening. In a recent OPM survey of government employees, 22 percent said they were teleworking without formal agreements, doing at least some of their jobs from home or elsewhere away from the office.

Managers are beginning to respond to this new de facto standard, Berry said. “We see that telework is starting to take root. Our managers are starting to see that this is a major culture shift.”


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Employee expectations for working outside the traditional office are combining with advances in technology and the possibility of new legislation to help erase the distinction between work and telework.

“The technology is certainly available” to enable effective telework, said General Services Administration Administrator Martha Johnson. “The private sector has been doing it for years.”

GSA is the lead agency for enabling government telework and has been identified as the second-leading agency in putting the concept into practice, after USPTO, which is the poster child for telework.

Johnson, speaking at the Telework Exchange conference, said 85 percent of GSA employees are eligible for telework and 42 percent of them work outside the office at least two days per pay period. She said the agency wants to expand the number of telework days and percentage of workers who telework.

Telework, or telecommuting, is the practice of working outside a traditional office or workplace. It has been promoted as a way to improve employee satisfaction and productivity, reduce highway congestion and pollution by limiting commuting, and cut government real estate and infrastructure costs.

A decade ago, much of the emphasis on telework focused on establishing satellite offices in outlying metropolitan areas that were convenient to commuters. Employees could work outside their usual office buildings but still be on government systems and networks. There are 13 telework centers in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. But Johnson said that as technology has advanced, telework occurs more frequently at home than at a center.

In spite of its limited application so far throughout government, telework would seem to be a no-brainer.

“GSA’s business analytics on telework show that, depending on the size of the program, there is a 200 to 1,500 percent return on the initial technological investment after adopting a telework system thanks to increased productivity, reduced absenteeism, lower real estate costs, and reduced recruitment and retention needs,” Johnson said.

In a pilot program in Kansas City, Mo., GSA essentially sent 42 of its employees home to work for 90 days. “Let there be no mistake,” Johnson said. “Our results were great.” More than three-quarters of the employees said their productivity had increased, sick leave dropped by 69 percent, peer-to-peer communication increased, and the workers avoided an estimated 30 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions by not commuting.

Through work started under the recovery act, GSA will expand telework among its 6,000 Washington, D.C., metro area employees. The agency plans to renovate its 100-year-old headquarters building, forcing workers into a temporary facility during construction. That dislocation and the elimination of three leased properties that house GSA offices in the Washington area are an opportunity for telework, Johnson said.

“When we come back, all of GSA in D.C. will return to that building,” she said. That will not work if all the employees are in the building at the same time. “This move will be, in part, a forcing function for our telework capacity.”

Another catalyst could be the Telework Improvement Act of 2010, which has passed both houses of Congress and is awaiting final approval in a reconciled form. With the House and Senate in recess until mid-November, time is running out for passage of the bill before the end of this congressional session. But Berry said congressional staff members already are working on a conference bill that would iron out differences in the House and Senate versions, adding that it has a good shot for passage in the lame-duck session following the elections in November.

The measure would require agencies to establish telework policies and designate telework managing officers, and it would call for OPM to develop regulations for implementing policies and guidelines for IT acquisition that support telework. The Office of Management and Budget and National Institute of Standards and Technology would need to establish security guidelines.

The bill would not take the place of continuity-of-operations plans that call for employees to work at home during emergencies nor would it create blanket approval for telework. Employees who handle classified information would be excluded from the policies, as would some employees with disciplinary problems. And agencies would need to certify that a telework policy would result in savings before they allow employees to work outside the office.

One of the remaining major hurdles to implementing telework is the lack of metrics for determining if it is working. Despite its potential for returns, there are no standards for objectively measuring worker performance and the effectiveness of programs. Berry said OPM wants to change that by focusing on results-oriented management.

OPM is conducting its own telework experiment. Although formal results are not yet available, Berry said anecdotal information gathered so far has been positive. He said OPM plans to extend the experiment to include better performance metrics and mechanisms for rewarding performance and sanctioning those who do not meet expectations. One of the tools would be negotiated agreements with employees to define the results expected and then focus on the results.

Negotiating with employees involves unions, and Johnson said GSA is in constant discussions with federal employee unions to define what will work best for everyone. She said she did not see unions as a block to effective telework policies but that the policies would need to be sold to everyone, including taxpayers.

“The last mile is to trust that this is going to work,” she said. “The amount of money we can save on this is a large argument for the taxpayers.”

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