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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