Snow highlights telework's benefits for federal workers, advocates say

After two recent snowstorms closed the federal government and schools across the region, people began digging out. The season's snow tally in D.C. reached 55.6 inches Wednesday -- more than the last record of 54.4 inches, set in 1898-99.
By Nicole Norfleet
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 11, 2010

To Danette Campbell, Tuesday was just another workday.

By 5:30 a.m., she was already at work, coffee in hand. By early afternoon, she had attended two meetings.

But she never had to leave the comfort of her home in La Plata.

Despite closings of the federal government and a record-breaking snowstorm this week, federal workers such as Campbell clocked in by teleworking.

For Campbell, a senior adviser for telework at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, working one to two days a week from her home office is just like working at her agency's Alexandria office. Except it's better.

"I have a tendency to work a little bit longer because I don't have that long commute in the morning and evening," she said.

To her, the past few snow days have been "wonderful." Tuesday night, she even had enough energy to cook a big family dinner, a luxury she's often too exhausted to enjoy when she commutes.

More and more federal agencies are warming to the idea. About 103,000 -- or almost 9 percent -- of eligible federal employees telecommuted in 2008, which was an improvement from the year before, according to a recent study by the Office of Personnel Management. The OPM, along with other agencies such as the General Services Administration, guides the government in implementing telework programs.

Each day it's closed, the federal government loses $100 million in productivity and untapped business opportunities. Teleworking is a way to cut down on those losses, said Chuck Wilsker, president and chief executive of the Telework Coalition, a nonprofit teleworking advocacy group.

Wilsker said business owners should ask themselves: "If something happens where I can't get to work, like a lot of snow, do I have some other way for my business to carry on?"

It takes Brian Bard three hours to get to work, and that's on a good day. As a quadriplegic, his commute can be the most physically draining part of his day. "It's not as easy as just whipping open a door and sitting down." Bard must use a wheelchair lift to get into his van, which he says gives him ample time to "experience the elements," and then he needs to lock his chair to the floor.

After driving from his home in Owings, in Calvert County, to the city, Bard parks and then takes a government-provided shuttle to the downtown office of the Rehabilitation Services Administration, where he works as a management and program analyst.

For Bard, teleworking is "empowering." He manages telework grants for people with disabilities and said he doesn't want people from across the country to look at federal employees as "just wimps" because they had days off. He said he hopes that federal workers will instead opt to telework as a way to offset the closings.

"It's a nice way to put a dent in that $100 million figure we keep hearing about," he said.

But Bard and other advocates acknowledge that not all supervisors have embraced telework.

Issues such as security and managers' pessimism about productivity at home have made it difficult for some workers to telework.

"If you get it, don't abuse it," Bard said. "It's not a right; it's a privilege."

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