Studies show the number of federal employees unofficially working remotely is outpacing the official estimates.
The Office of Personnel Management reported recently that the number of government employees working remotely increased by more than 11,000 from 2008 to 2009, and that slightly more than 10 percent of eligible employees — or 5.72 percent of all federal employees — are teleworking.
These figures might not reflect the reality of government telework, however, according to both OPM and outside sources. In an Employee Viewpoint Survey conducted by OPM, 22 percent of federal employees reported they did some teleworking in 2009, many via unwritten, ad hoc arrangements.
Other studies suggest the numbers are even higher. A 2008 survey by the Telework Exchange reported that 42 percent of federal employees teleworked at least part of the time, and in a recent survey of federal workers by the Government Business Council for CDW Government, 89 percent of workers surveyed reported that they work outside the office, more than half of them at least weekly.
“However we feel about telework, people are working outside of the office,” said Josh Sawislak, a senior fellow with the Telework Exchange. “That’s the new reality.”
Much of this telework is casual, with employees using personal laptops, smart phones and other personal devices to check work e-mail, work on documents and make work-related phone calls while out of the office.
Even so, agencies already have noted higher levels of productivity due to telework during what would otherwise have been lost time on Washington snow days and other disruptions. But productive as it might be, the unofficial use of home and mobile equipment to access government resources can also put a greater burden on IT administrators to ensure connections and devices do not compromise data.
Is the technology in place to ensure that remote workers are working securely? “That’s the question I wake up to at night,” said Josh Radlein, an inside solutions architect at CDW-Government.
The technology to do it exists, but it can be burdensome for employees. Eighty-six percent of the workers questioned in the Government Business Council survey said that security measures had prevented them from accessing information they needed while working remotely. Thwarted employees often find ways around security to do what they want, which can create additional threats no matter where they are working.
“Security is always a challenge, regardless of telework,” said Cindy Auten, general manager of the Telework Exchange.
The expectations of new workers and evolving technology are helping to drive the remote working trend, and much of the casual teleworking is not being done in traditional home or satellite offices. Younger employees expect to be able to use their own increasingly functional mobile devices not only in the workplace but also at home and on the road.
Although 90 percent of the teleworkers in the Government Business Council survey did at least some work at home, only 1 percent worked in telecommuting centers. Two-thirds reported that they work while on travel and 43 percent do some work while commuting to and from the office.
The concept of remote work is being blurred somewhat by other trends in technology, such as virtualization and the migration to the cloud. “When the data are stored on the cloud, we’re all remote workers,” Sawislak said. “All of these things are coming together to create the perfect storm” that make the implementation of policies and technology to accommodate remote workers a necessity.
Despite the rapid ad hoc adoption of telework by workers, cultural barriers to its full acceptance remain.
“The biggest challenge continues to be changing the outlook of management,” Auten said. “This is difficult for management. It forces them to really look at what workers do and manage it,” rather than focus on time and attendance.
It has long been the government’s policy to encourage telework, as a way to improve productivity and worker satisfaction as well as to reduce pollution by reducing the number of commuters on the road. But the policies remain works in process.
The Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 requires agencies to establish policies and designate telework managing officers, and calls for OPM to develop regulations for implementing policies as well as guidelines for IT acquisition that would support telework. The Office of Management and Budget together with the National Institute of Standards and Technology will establish security guidelines for remote workers.
OPM was scheduled to send guidance on telework policy implementation to agencies by the end of March, and has scheduled a meeting with all telework management officers for April 6. By June 9, all federal employees will be notified of their eligibility for telework under the new policies.
The General Services Administration is the lead agency for enabling government telework and is a leading agency in putting the concept into practice. Eighty-five percent of GSA employees have been identified as eligible for telework, according to Administrator Martha Johnson, and 42 percent now work outside the office at least two days every pay period.
The Patent and Trademark Office often is cited as the leading agency in telework, with many of its patent examiners having worked from home for several years. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services also has been aggressive in this area. When CMS began planning for a desktop refresh in 2007, it decided to instead acquire laptops with built-in security that could enable remote access for teleworking. The decision at first appeared expensive, costing about 30 percent more than updating desktop PCs, but it turned out to be a bargain when employees were able to work from home during inclement weather.
“It’s hard to think of an agency that doesn’t at least have a pocket of excellence,” said Auten, who welcomes news from OPM that nearly 114,000 federal workers were teleworking in 2009. Although she is an advocate of telework, she said successful programs need not result in overnight transitions.
“I didn’t expect a huge surge in 2009,” she said. “The key is progress. This is a cultural shift.”
Agency next steps
The Telework Enhancement Act has put the legislative framework in place to enable and encourage teleworking, Auten said. The next step in making it work within each agency is to bring together stakeholders who will be involved, including the IT shop to enable and manage access, unions, human resources, those in charge of business continuity and even real estate mangers, because office space needs can change significantly when work patterns shift.
The availability of technology to enable remote access is not a problem, she said. “The technology is blazing a trail. It’s much more available than in the past.”
“We can [put the right technology in place], but we don’t always do it well," Sawislak said. "I don’t believe that security and access are mutually exclusive.”
At the same time, a total block on remote access can be self-defeating because workers will find ways around it. “You’ve got to have the balance,” he said. “This is not a technology problem. The technology exists and it’s getting better every day.”
Collaboration tools, such as inexpensive laptop and desktop-based videoconferencing and docu ment-sharing applications help employees and managers stay connected wherever they are working. Virtual private networks can secure connections, network access control can ensure the proper configuration and health of connecting devices, and self-encrypting drives can protect data that is being stored or used remotely.
“I don’t think that security hinders telework, but you always have to have it in mind,” Auten said.
Training and education is essential to ensure that managers and employees both know how to handle and protect data and why it is necessary. “Education has always been key in security,” Radlein said. “People need to know what type of security is being used and why.”
Like everything else in government, teleworking eventually comes down to budgets. But tight budgets should not discourage enabling telework, Sawislak said.
With so much of the workforce working outside the office, teleworking already is a reality and remote access is a default requirement. It will be more cost effective to address these issues than to deny them. “They can’t afford not to do it,” he said.