Who's teleworking? Government doesn't really know.

In 2010, the Office of Personnel Management set an aggressive goal of increasing the level of telework among federal employees by 50 percent, but officials don’t know how well they’re doing with it because of shortcomings in the way data about telework is collected, according to a recent report.

OPM plans to test an automated system to gather telework data from agencies this year to get more complete and consistent data, rather than relying on agency estimates as in the past. But these changes also will make it difficult to compare the data with that from previous years, as required by the Telework Enhancement Act, according to the Government Accountability Office.

“OPM officials have noted that this could limit OPM’s ability to report agency progress in its first report to Congress,” GAO said in its report.

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It likely will be several years before there can be meaningful measurements of progress in moving federal workers out of the office.

Government policy has long supported the idea of telework, and anecdotal reports have identified greater job satisfaction, improved efficiency and reduced costs as benefits of working remotely, along with the environmental benefits from reduced commuting. But policies at each agency have varied, and worker participation has been spotty.

According to the 2011 OPM report on the status of federal telework, 5.72 percent of employees teleworked in 2009, about two-thirds of them regularly, defined as from one to three days a week. But 22 percent reported teleworking “to some extent.”

The Telework Enhancement Act in 2010 required agencies to identify employees eligible to work at least some of the time outside the traditional office and to establish formal programs to encourage telework. OPM is to report annually to Congress on participation, which requires a comprehensive program to gather data.

OPM has been gathering telework information for Congress annually since 2002. But its reports have been based on agency estimates of participation rather than rigorous data.

“OPM cautions that existing measures of telework participation are a barrier to measuring any increase in telework, as the measures vary widely in validity and reliability and limit the capability of any federal body to track the actual level and frequency of telework participation,” the GAO report states.

In response to the Telework Enhancement Act, OPM made changes in data collection for the report on 2011 participation, which is due to Congress in June. The agency standardized definitions, clarified survey questions, and gathered new information. But the transition was complicated by inadequate training, and results in the initial report will not be comparable with earlier ones.

“OPM officials anticipate that telework data will be more reliable next year because of the expected governmentwide implementation of automated data collection based on time and attendance records,” GAO said. “Data collected through automated systems eliminates the need to track telework data by counting telework agreements or relying on estimates.”

OPM will begin piloting automated data collection from agency human resources systems a common coding system this year, with full automation expected in 2013.

“Different agencies have varying abilities to implement this new type of data collection and reporting mechanism, and considering different levels of comfort with new systems, it will take time to adjust to this method,” GAO said.

The 2011 telework report cannot be used as a baseline for measuring future progress under the Telework Act because of the differences in data being collected going forward. Although improvements are expected in the consistency of future reports, OPM said it does not control the quality of the information.

“The measurement of telework participation currently occurs at the level of the individual agency,” Angela Bailey, OPM’s associate director of employee service, said in response to the GAO report. “Few work/life agency staffs are adequately trained in evaluation methodology or data collection. As a consequence, inadequate methods for data collection prevail within agencies and many, as GAO noted, do not adequately capture telework behavior.”

But automating collection could help improve quality, she said. “The automated system will provide data appropriate to more sophisticated analyses, including examination of trends to the extent appropriate and, more importantly, provide OPM with the data necessary to assess important outcomes with telework.”


About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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Reader Comments

Wed, Apr 25, 2012

Umm...there is different pay codes at our agency to code your time for telework...seems fairly easy to make a report from this.In any case, telework is a farse and a lot of money is being wasted trying to promote it when 90% of the managers/supervisors don't support it they are simply going through the motions. Make it mandatory or quit wasting taxpayer money. I got approval, did all the training, inspections, etc and then was told I would rarely, if ever, be allowed to telework since there is no way to measure work done...this don't fly either cause 90% of my work is not measurable until a project is done. Weird thing is, is I can charge time for working in my motel - isn't this teleworking?

Tue, Apr 24, 2012 Lancelot Link

I guarantee that increased telework would become the de rigueur if SES bonuses and military efficiency reports were tied to that improvement. Even the "faces in place" mentality would be overcome by the opportunity for self promotion.

Mon, Apr 23, 2012 Paul

In our Army organization, we have to fill out an offical request for telework that includes specifying routine vs ad hoc access. Seems like making this approval electronic would be sufficient for at least tracking who is authorized to work offsite. To DHHS, I feel your pain but it has to be done. Beyond the IT management nightmares, personal laptops are just not very secure and I don't think you want the required security hardware/software added to your personal device. I just wish we weren't restricted to a small selection of laptops. We are being forced to go to a laptop only configuration and what we have available, even the newer models, are clunky and slow.

Mon, Apr 23, 2012 SoutheastUS

Unless and until true work metrics are developed, there will be no real measure of work efficiency of staff. Without that, managers will continue to be reluctant to allow telecommuting because they can't physcially check that the employee "is working" for the amount of time they are supposed to be working. Also, workers, generally, don't want to be measured by work product metrics because the more efficient staff don't want to be overloaded just to make sure they work their full weekly time allotment and underachievers don't want to be "discovered" as inefficient. Paying staff according to their work metric efficiencies also smacks of the "piece work" sweat shops of the early industrial revolution where workers were paid, not be the hour, but by the completed pieces of work. Telework is a nice concept that is extremely difficult to implement with any consistency and measurable value.

Mon, Apr 23, 2012 Walter Washington, DC

The Navy accounts for time worked as teleworking, but it doesn't collect much information on why, and the policy is enforced differently in and between different commands. I know of one office where part of the office is encouraged to telework and the other part is banned from it. They do similar work, but have different supervisors, one works well with his people, and the other openly mocks them in open meetings. The office in general encourages telework because the capital area planning commission is cutting out parking allotments to one parking space for every 5 workers. As a result, there is no available parking after 7 AM, unless you go off base and park in DC owned parking lots for $10 per day. They have limitted telework to 2 days per pay period, but other than that, who is allowed to do it and when depends greatly on who you work for.

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