Next-generation telework: not just for snowstorms
- By Paul McCloskey
- May 04, 2016
Telework won its reputation for maintaining agency uptime in the past decade by providing workers with the digital tools they needed to keep workgroups operating and devices secure through large and small disruptions.
During Snowzilla -- last winter’s showcase storm that dumped two to three feet of snow on the Mid-Atlantic region and closed schools and offices for days -- the General Services Administration said more than 3,600 of its 3,800 employees in the Washington, D.C., area were eligible to telework.
Fairfax County, Va., government offices were forced to close, but more than 600 employees logged on via the county’s telework solution. “People here could still get to their apps to provide support,” IT Infrastructure Director Jeff Porter said.
Yet despite making progress, agencies still face sizable challenges in overseeing their telework programs, including how to equip millennial workers conditioned to a bring-your-own-tech culture and how to guide a workforce that no longer needs or wants traditional office space.
Many agency telework leaders and market analysts see those challenges as interrelated and argue that a more unified approach is needed to revamp how, when and where government employees telework.
“For too long, telework has been deployed as a tactical solution to the problem du jour -- i.e., snowstorms, reducing real estate costs, attracting talent,” said Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics. “That leads to very siloed execution that leaves a lot on the table in terms of results.”
Many agencies are taking a more holistic approach to addressing those demands, she added, and are beginning to see positive results in terms of employee retention, engagement and cost reductions.
Mika Cross, a federal telework policy expert who has helped oversee telework transitions at several agencies in the past 20 years, also sees progress in using telework to integrate workforce management silos.
“It might have started as a way to save costs, [but] now you have conversations taking place at the highest level of these agencies about telework as an integrated approach to solving issues relative to space utilization, human capital, information technology strategies as well as costs savings,” she said.
“Ultimately, agencies are becoming more efficient because it forces the conversation on these questions,” Cross added.
The FEMA hotel
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has responded to workforce changes by tapping cross-department support from its IT, human resources and real estate teams to help manage what officials call a workforce transformation.
FEMA’s plan expands its telework force and emphasizes the mobile tools and training employees need to do their jobs. “One of the keys is that everybody has the technology required in order to be mobile,” FEMA CIO Adrian Gardner said.
By giving more employees the ability to work anywhere using mobile devices and collaborative apps, they will require less long-term office space, which is prompting the agency to look for opportunities to “flatten” the conventional real estate it maintains.
As a result, FEMA has opted for a “hoteling” approach to its smaller workforce space. The approach involves restructuring standard offices as team rooms in a range of sizes and capabilities to accommodate more dynamic meeting requirements.
For technology-enhanced collaboration, FEMA offers workers a range of connectivity applications to facilitate group meeting and one-on-one sessions, including Microsoft Lync (now Skype for Business), Adobe Connect, Citrix GoToMeeting and Cisco Jabber.
“The real outcome is ensuring that our folks have the tools they need to work from anywhere…using those devices,” Gardner said. “Mobility has always been part of our ethos in the field, but now we’re really bringing that to headquarters and the regional offices as well.”
USPTO’s virtual office
At the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, 11,000 employees out of 12,600 are teleworking at least one day a week, said Danette Campbell, director of USPTO’s Telework Program Office.
About 5,700 of them have relinquished their office desks to work from home full-time, which has allowed the agency to maintain its large workforce without adding office space, she said.
To support the intricate workflow of the patent-approval process, USPTO offers its teleworkers a virtual duplication of the tools available to office-based staff.
“Our immediate telework goal is to continue to emulate the environment that users experience in the office,” Campbell said. “In the long term, we want to ensure we have the latest, most reliable suite of tools available to both our on-campus staff as well as to our teleworkers.”
USPTO currently offers some hoteling features, but because of its high percentage of off-campus teleworkers, most collaboration in the patent process takes place via a set of unified communications and voice-over-IP services, as well as Skype for Business and Cisco WebEx videoconferencing platforms.
“Our workforce is composed of scientists, engineers and attorneys,” she said. “To get their work done, they must communicate and collaborate; it’s a huge part of what we do here.”
Because of the technical sophistication of USPTO workers and their workflow, the agency is open to acquiring additional collaborative apps. “I’m sure that with tech exploding, there will be even bigger and better tools” in the future, Campbell said.
Paul McCloskey is senior editor of GCN. A former editor-in-chief of both GCN and FCW, McCloskey was part of Federal Computer Week's founding editorial staff.