Survey, law grow telework optimism

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By 2010 telework report shows the administration’s push to create a mobile workforce hasn’t taken hold quite yet. From 2008 to 2009, the number of teleworkers increased by 11,046 employees, but only about five percent of all federal employees and 10 percent of those who are eligible telework.

“The report examines and tried to quantify the growing commitment to telework, both through the lens of teleworkers and through the lens of the agencies themselves,” said Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) in an interview with Federal News Radio. “We’re getting data from both sides that allows us to create a baseline and we can continue to measure that going forward.”

Sarbanes sponsored the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010, which President Obama signed into law in December.

Sarbanes said the survey results are encouraging but it will take time to turn agency culture toward telework. He added that provisions of the new law will address some issues raised in the survey.

About half of all employees who responded to the survey said they did not telework because of barriers such as office coverage challenges, organizational culture, management resistance and IT issues.

“There are real barriers and there are perceived barriers,” Sarbanes said. “I think we can address some of the perceived barriers by putting these guidelines and policies in place, by having a telework managing officer within each agency, by doing the evaluations. Over time, what will happen is these perceived barriers will begin to fade away.”

However, John Salamone, a consultant with Federal Management Partners and a former executive director of the Chief Human Capital Officer’s (CHCO) Council, said IT and information security barriers are real and must be considered carefully.

“Telework is a classic example where the human capital community can’t do this alone,” Salamone said. “It’s a great opportunity for the CFO, CIO and acquisition community to partner with the CHCOs and agencies. You’re making personnel decisions, but if you’re going to make a decision to buy IT support, you can get your acquisition team involved. But do you have the money from a financial standpoint? And then from an IT standpoint, if we’re going to have an influx of teleworkers in an agency, do the agencies have the IT infrastructure to support that?”

Only 33 of the 79 agencies that responded to the survey reported cost savings and other benefits from teleworking. Sarbanes said that is because many agencies don’t track that data.

Those that did report benefits, 37 percent saw positive responses in human capital such as recruitment and retention and 34 percent realized savings in leave. The greatest benefit was in the area of productivity, with 39 percent of responses.

Sarbanes said teleworking helps the productivity of an entire agencies, not just the telecommuters because those agencies redefined their performance measures to more rigorously reflect bottom line results.

This finding doesn’t come as a surprise to OPM Director John Berry.

“Presenteeism, the practice of sitting at one’s desk without working, can be just as problematic as absenteeism,” Berry wrote in the introduction to the report. “I am an adamant supporter of telework because workers in an effective telework program can only be judged by their results. Those who can’t perform and can’t improve can’t hide behind their desks. It is up to management to give our employees clear direction and support and then trust them to deliver.”

The study shows there is no government-wide policy regarding many aspects of teleworking, not just employee performance. Agencies also have varying policies regarding:

  • Tracking program effectiveness and benefits.
  • Using agency funds to enable telework.
  • Informing employees of telework eligibility.
  • Measuring how many employees are teleworking and how often.
  • Securing personally identifiable information.

Salamone said the new law gives agencies a good structure to adopt telework, but making programs effective also will require training of managers and employees.

“Just because someone is telework eligible doesn’t mean they are telework ready,” he said.

Results from all respondents suggest a fairly low rate of satisfaction with telework, 46 percent. But that number is an average of those who face program barriers and those who do not. Almost three quarters of employees who face barriers have unfavorable perceptions, while only 10 percent of those able to telework were dissatisfied.

Sarbanes said the private sector already has boosted employee satisfaction, productivity and hiring with telework, and it is time for government to follow suit.

He said the government can actually out-do the private sector by incorporating telework into Continuity Of Operations Planning (COOP). The report shows that 72 percent of agencies already have done so.

“That shows, probably better than anything, that there is an implicit understanding of how useful telework can be,” Sarbanes said. “Because what it’s saying is, ‘When we are in the toughest of situations when we’ve got to continue our operations, the best way to do that is telework.'”

Sarbanes pointed to the snow storm from last winter as an example of how telework could have helped avert a Washington area government shutdown.

As for ensuring the law gets implemented, agencies must submit telework policies to OPM to comply by June 9.

Sarbanes said he hopes Congress and the administration will support agencies by recognizing significant progress. He said calling agencies out in a positive way will encourage friendly competition and spur even more creative thinking around teleworking.

(Copyright 2011 by All Rights Reserved.)