DOT shut down its headquarters last spring and discovered that telework works, but problems can crop up in a few areas.
The Transportation Department conducted a stress test last spring of its capacity to use telework as part of its disaster preparedness plans, sending eligible headquarters employees home to work during a mock snowstorm.
“It worked,” said Deputy Secretary John D. Porcari during this week’s Telework Exchange Town Hall Meeting in Washington.
But some technical and managerial challenges remain, and DOT learned some lessons about planning, education and communication.
Telework -- usually working from home but also other non-traditional work sites such as satellite offices or in the field -- is being touted in government as a way to improve productivity, increase employee satisfaction, save money, ease traffic congestion and reduce pollution by getting workers online and off the road. An increasingly networked environment with a growing availability of IP devices is making this more practical, and under the Telework Enhancement Act agencies must identify workers who are eligible to work out of the office at least some of the time and accommodate them if they wish to do so.
Telework also is becoming an important part of continuity of operations plans, and official and unofficial telework have helped to keep the wheels of government turning during Washington-area snowstorms in recent years.
At DOT, a little more than half of the employees are eligible to telework, about 28,000 out of 55,000, and about 15,000 have signed agreements to allow this. Most work outside the office one or two days for each two-week period, Porcari said, and on any given day about 3,000 across the department are working outside the office.
What happens if working outside the office is a necessity and not an option? DOT tried to find out with a test during Telework Week, an effort in the first week of March by the Telework Exchange to encourage the practice. On one day DOT “shut down” its Washington headquarters and encouraged all eligible employees to work from home instead. About 68 percent of eligible workers did, a record number, and it did stress the system.
“We did experience some technical issues,” Porcari said. Here are some of the lessons learned.
“Build more capacity than you think you’ll use,” he said. The department thought it had enough licenses for its secure remote desktop used to access department resources, but found it needed to get more on the fly to accommodate the surge in use. The network also must be able to handle an increase in traffic for routine work usually being done inside the perimeter.
There also was a spike in help desk calls, which raises two points. First, you have to have the desk staffed to handle the calls; and second, workers need to be familiar with the tools, processes and policies of working remotely. Those who work from outside regularly probably won’t have a problem — as long as the networks hold up — but those without telework experience are likely to need a helping hand.
Supervisors and front-line employees need to establish clear expectations for telework, even if the workers don’t use the option very often, so that when the crunch comes both sides will feel comfortable with it. Unfortunately, management resistance remains one of roadblocks to telework, Porcari said. “This is a conceptual change.”
One problem that has not appeared so far in teleworking is security. Like every other agency, “we’ve had some pretty significant cyber events,” Porcari said, but they have not increased with the adoption of telework, and none appears to be related to outside workers.
DOT plans to expand its stress test to facilities across the nation sometime this fall.