DISA Fights Turnover With Telecommuting

By Dina ElBoghdady
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The agency may be leaving, but does the workforce have to follow?

Maybe not. There's another option now for about 4,000 workers whose jobs are moving from the Defense Information Systems Agency in Northern Virginia to Fort George G. Meade in Anne Arundel County: telecommuting.

This month, DISA adopted a more flexible telecommuting policy as it tries to keep workers who would rather find a new job near home than move or make the daily trip to central Maryland. Federal officials applauded the initiative as necessary, smart and in keeping with an overall trend among federal workers.

"There are lots of draws away from us. People like you all in this room are trying to attract our employees," John J. Garing, the agency's chief information officer, told government contractors gathered at a conference in Falls Church yesterday. So the agency is "putting telecommuting on steroids."

The issue came to a head shortly after the Pentagon announced plans last year to reshuffle personnel as it tried to consolidate military installations nationwide. Under the plan, DISA was told its jobs must move to Fort Meade during the next five years or so.

DISA accounts for about 4,098 of the 5,291 jobs headed to Fort Meade, according to the base, though the agency says the numbers could be lower. About 922 of the workers are at the agency's Arlington headquarters.

In the summer, DISA polled its employees, 75 percent of whom live in Northern Virginia, and found that at least half said they would not move to Fort Meade and that the rest were split between going and being undecided.

To avert an exodus, the agency two weeks ago started allowing employees to work from home up to two days a week with permission from their supervisors. Previously, workers could telecommute only one day every two weeks, said Michael Thiem, a spokesman for DISA.

The goal is "to get people used to the idea of telecommuting," Thiem said. "What we hope to do is make Fort Meade more attractive for our workforce to stay with us."

DISA, which provides information technology services on the battlefield, will survey its employees again later this year. Meanwhile, it set up an internal Web site where employees can ask questions anonymously about the base realignment process.

"We know we've already had some employees depart DISA because of our planned relocation," Thiem said. "But we've also had some employees who departed DISA prior to the [base consolidations announcement] return to DISA even after knowing about our future move."

Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), an advocate of telecommuting, applauded the decision. Wolf has put pressure on the Commerce, State and Justice departments, which he oversees as chairman of an appropriations subcommittee, to expand their telecommuting opportunities.

"It's a very good thing to do for the employer, for the employee, for the taxpayer, for traffic and for the cost of gasoline," Wolf said. The DISA policy change "makes sense," he said.

The Office of Personnel Management, a longtime supporter of "teleworking," said the number of federal employees who telecommute has been steadily rising, jumping to 19 percent in 2004 from 4.2 percent in 2001. In the Washington area, it rose to 22,522 workers in 2003 from 14,621 in 2002.

"Federal managers should take this opportunity to work with their staffs to develop programs that work for both the Department of Defense and its employees," a spokesman for the office said.

Garing, who is a Woodbridge resident, said he and other agency employees have a "value judgment" to make come moving time.

"My family lives in Northern Virginia -- four kids and three grandchildren," Garing said. "My wife has told me bluntly that if I move to Maryland, 'See you later.' "

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