Feds still lag on telework, but is it the calm before the storm?

Although studies have shown that regular teleworking could help agencies improve productivity and reduce costs, telework has been slow to take off in the federal workplace.

The most recent survey of government IT professionals by the Telework Exchange shows that just 21 percent of federal workers are working outside their regular offices at least two times a week, and most of them are paying their own way with little or no reimbursement for expenses.

Industry officials say this is merely a lull before the storm and that use of mobile devices for work is expected to increase by 20 percent by the end of the year.

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“I think employees are looking forward to it,” said Bob Kerr, vice president of telework integrator SwishData Corp. “We need to prepare for that storm of applications and devices” that will be used for remote access by teleworkers.

Relatively little preparation is going on in agencies, however, according to the survey results. Although security was listed as the top telework concern by 45 percent of respondents, only 33 percent said they plan to invest in mobile asset management in the next two years, 25 percent in data loss prevention and 21 percent in multifactor authentication.

The survey, underwritten by SwishData and Riverbed Technology, was conducted online in February with 152 federal IT professionals. It claims a margin of error of plus or minus about 8 percentage points at a 95 percent confidence level. With that margin of error, the estimated level of telework falls below that from a similar survey last year, which showed nearly one third of employees participating.

This year’s report distinguishes between the 21 percent of the workforce who are regular teleworkers, who work outside the office at least two days a week, and the 22 percent of employees who are identified as more casual mobile workers who connect remotely at least once during a pay period. Mobile workers can include field personnel and employees on travel. The figures should not be combined because of possible overlap in the two groups, according to the Telework Exchange, so it is difficult to come up with a clear number for participants in telework programs.

Comparisons with earlier government studies also are difficult. According to a 2011 report from the Office of Personnel Management on the status of federal telework, 5.72 percent of employees teleworked in 2009, about two-thirds of them regularly from one to three days a week. But 22 percent reported teleworking “to some extent.”

It has long been government policy to support telework, but adoption has been spotty, with a few agencies, such as the Patent and Trademark Office and the General Services Administration, taking advantage of it on a large scale. Studies have identified benefits including increased productivity, improved employee morale, money savings and environmental advantages. These benefits, coupled with the rapid expansion of personal technology enabling remote access to online resources, culminated in the 2010 Telework Enhancement Act.

The act requires agencies to establish policies and notify employees, name an official to be in charge of telework efforts, establish training programs, and include telework in continuity-of-operations planning.

When the Telework Exchange survey asked respondents to rank their agencies based on their ability to enable telework, 18 percent gave their agencies an A, and 47 percent a B. Twenty-one percent got a C, and just 2 percent failed.

Most agencies represented made no reimbursements for the employee’s Internet and phone service, work-related applications or printing supplies.

The adoption of cloud services is expected to be an enabler of telework, because it will make all users remote users and will force agencies to ensure that infrastructure and applications will support this kind of access.

“The agencies are looking to improve infrastructure” and are focusing on management of mobile access devices' data loss prevention, Kerr said. “Budget constraints are forcing organizations to prioritize,” and mobility and remote desktops are two high IT priorities, he said.


About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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