Federal telework rates still something of a mystery

Although nearly one third of federal employees are eligible to telework, fewer than 7 percent have telework agreements that allow them to regularly work outside of the office, and most of them telework two days a week or less, according to the Office of Personnel Management.

“Overall, the use of telework is expanding and improving in the federal government,” OPM said in its recent report to Congress on teleworking in 2011.

Just how much it is expanding and how fast it is improving is difficult to say, however, as the agency struggles to measure participation and benefits. Changes in the way data was collected for 2011 make comparison of figures with earlier reports difficult, and OPM warns that “in the absence of a standardized governmentwide data-collection system or trained data-collection staff in all agencies, the final combined telework participation estimates are unlikely to be reliable.”

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“The data collection is the biggest challenge,” said Tom Simmons, public sector vice president of Citrix, a vendor of cloud and virtualization technology. “The challenge is more in the measurement than in the actual implementation and results.”

OPM conducted a pilot program this year to automate the gathering of telework data from agencies. The goal is more accurate and consistent data, but until it has been fully in place for several years, measuring progress from year to year will be difficult.
Most of the challenges in the implementation continue to be cultural, said Simmons, who nevertheless sees evidence of progress in the OPM report. The most successful programs are in agencies in which managers embrace teleworking and work with employees to set clear objectives.

The most frequently cited barriers to telework are management resistance and technology, according to OPM’s report. Many managers apparently remain leery of allowing remote access to agency data and resources.

The Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 required agencies to identify employees eligible to work outside the traditional office and to establish formal programs to encourage telework. OPM must report annually to Congress on participation.

According to last year's  OPM report 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.”

Figures in the latest report show that 684,589 employees, or about 32 percent of the federal workforce, had been deemed eligible for telework in 2011. Of those 144,851, or 6.7 percent, have telework agreements. About 23 percent of those workers telework three days a week or more.

OPM reports that technology and data security are frequently mentioned as barriers to teleworking, but Simmons said that technology is available to enable secure teleworking. Virtualization can keep data behind a firewall, enabling the use of remote devices such as thin clients rather than fully equipped computers.

“Most of the barriers we see are the result of policies that say you have to use government-furnished equipment and connect through a VPN,” he said.

He cited a recent policy by the Defense Logistics Agency allowing remote access by personally owned devices as long as they use the required antivirus software and a reader to enable Common Access Card authentication.

Nearly all of the 87 agencies covered in the OPM report had established telework policies and notified eligible workers, as required in the Telework Enhancement Act. Seventy-five of the agencies had incorporated telework in continuity of operations planning.

In practice, much of the burden of teleworking set up falls on the workers. Fifty agencies reported that employees pay for their own Internet service, with only seven agencies footing the bill. Twenty agencies provide equipment, 15 let the employee buy his own equipment, and 26 agencies share the costs.

Results are difficult to quantify, but tend to be positive. Teleworkers say they are more likely to know what is expected of them on the job and feel as though they are held accountable for results. They also report a greater sense of empowerment, higher job satisfaction, and a greater desire to stay at their current job.

Among agencies:

  • 15 reported reduced employee absences among teleworkers.
  • 10 reported improved employee retention.
  • 6 reported savings in rent and office space.
  • 4 reported savings on utilities.
  • 4 reported reduced transportation subsidies.


About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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Reader Comments

Mon, Jul 23, 2012

Frowned upon? At DLA Dist Susquehanna it is flat out rejected by command and mgmt unless your a supervisor! Tell me how the one person who is required to actually supervise is the only person allowed not to be here?

Tue, Jul 17, 2012 Len California

Telework has been suggested as a way of saving money. The cost of renting space for field technicians who spend 2 to 3 hours a day in the office and 7 hours in the field on a 4 day - 10 hour shifts. Our supervisor is not apposed to it however upper management is. There is no reason that we can not dial in from our homes into our data systems and complete our work, we do it now and from the field. As well as dial in for meetings with your cell phones - teleconference. We can easily operate out of our homes and save the taxpayers the cost of renting an office space and also the cost in fuel for our government vehicles not to mention adding more available man hours during our shifts to complete work. My thoughts for what it is worth!

Sat, Jul 14, 2012

OPM failed from the outset to establish standardized government wide data-collection system resulting in a wide range of anecdotal telework estimates submitted by agencies. Secondly, there is no need to try the old-school method of (more time wasted) training data-collection staff in all agencies to do what can be done NOW! Until we change the culture at OPM taxpayers will continue to pay for more wasted time and taxes on data collection which can be accomplished within several days - not 30 days or more. Ironically, telework data collection is not the most challenging - it is the easiest but crucial step of telework data collectionl. But as Einstein once said, problems cannot be solved by those who created the problems...Outdated cultural values at the OPM continue to pose problems that really don't exist aside from their old line of thinking. Automated collection of telework data has been available for decades in the federal government. This includes quarter to quarter and year to year comparisons by agency and sub agency and by occupation. In addition, agencies can be relieved of having to compile and produce yet another report of anecdotal data. Instead, OPM should be issuing annual telework report cards to agencies making it a factor in rating agencies and their leadership teams. This is NOT rocket science folks! GAO has been contacted on several occasions by private vendors to provide this government wide data in support of GAO's required annual telework reports to Congress. Apparently GAO has not shared the availability of these service with any agencies or the OPM.

Fri, Jul 13, 2012 ABOB Atlanta

Most supervisors frown on the idea that employees would want to telework. Micro management is the reason at oour CMO. My current supervisor has more unnecessary meetings that take away from actual productive time that anyone could ever imagine. The word Telework does not exist at DCMA unless you are a chosen one from the front office.

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