Telework is a work in progress

Joe Davidson
Columnist July 9, 2012

Teleworking makes sense — dollars and cents.

Promoting the ability of federal employees to work from home can reduce government overhead, improve employee work-life balance and allow work to continue when government offices need to close.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

Yet many who could, don’t.

It doesn’t work for every government gig, but it almost certainly is a good idea for more federal workers than (1) those who are allowed to use it and (2) those who do use it.

An Office of Personnel Management (OPM) report on the “Status of Telework in the Federal Government” indicates that 32 percent of federal workers are eligible to telework. Of those, fewer than 25 percent actually teleworked in September. OPM doesn’t know how many employees teleworked during the recent period of storms and heat.

The Patent and Trademark Office, where nearly two-thirds of employees work from home, has long been in the forefront of teleworking among governmental agencies.

“Telework is a well-accepted business strategy and a large part of our culture,” said Danette R. Campbell, the agency’s senior telework adviser. “Managers realize the positive impact this strategy has on real estate cost-avoidance, production, recruiting and retaining a highly skilled workforce, and continuity of operations.”

That’s not always true across government.

Certainly, many jobs are not compatible with working from home. Nonetheless, government-wide figures reflect a continuing and unnecessary reluctance by supervisors who believe they can’t manage those they can’t see.

“For many managers, reluctance to allow telework is rooted in uncertainty about managing individual performance,” said Justin Johnson, OPM’s deputy chief of staff. “Telework requires a new mind-set, and it changes the dynamics of the work and the workplace in ways that not everyone feels competent to manage. All managers need to get more comfortable with managing by results rather than process and time in the office.”

On paper, teleworking plans look good.

In the report’s introduction, OPM Director John Berry said agencies representing more than 99 percent of the federal workforce have included telework “as a critical component of their agency Continuity of Operations Plans,” which would be used to keep the government operating “through hazardous weather, pandemic or physical attacks that would result in the closure of Government buildings.”

“Telework can make employees more efficient, more accountable, and more resilient in emergency conditions,” Berry wrote in the report.

But a long-standing problem remains: “Not all managers are comfortable directing employees who telework,” he added.

The telework law was designed to foster a more consistent and systematic program for government telecommuting. Yet the amount of telework varies significantly from agency to agency. Some of that is because of the nature of the work, and some is because of managerial resistance.

Although a great deal of attention has been paid to the benefits of teleworking, less than a third of federal employees are eligible, according to the report. Of those, 21 percent have a telework agreement in place.

“[A]s often happens when innovations are introduced, Federal telework faces barriers to full implementation,” the report says. “Asked to describe ongoing challenges, several agencies reported resistance among key stakeholders (e.g., managers) as well as technology and security concerns.”

Patricia Niehaus, president of the Federal Managers Association, said the main reasons for that resistance are a lack of telework training and worries that managers won’t be able to discontinue telework if necessary.

“Both managers and employees need to be trained on how to handle assignments and accountability under telework,” she said.

Some departments with low teleworking rates, such as Veterans Affairs and Justice, said the duties of many employees are not compatible with teleworking, even if they are officially eligible.

Though only 2 percent of VA employees teleworked in September, according to the report, a VA statement said the agency’s “ad hoc telework policy ensures participation on those days and for those circumstances where it is workable.”

At the Defense Department, where 5 percent of employees teleworked in September, “our goal is to increase the visibility and usage of the telework program and to shift the culture toward one that is increasingly accepting of telework as an acceptable way of doing business for those in eligible positions,” said the department’s Leslie Hull-Ryde.

Culture can be hard to change.

As Berry pointed out, “Not all managers are comfortable directing employees who telework.”

Are you eligible to work from home but you don’t do it? Tell us why.

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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