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Federal Diary by Joe Davidson

Obamas tout benefits of a flexible workplace

By Joe Davidson
Thursday, April 1, 2010

President Obama smiled when he said it, but there was no doubt he was serious with his comment: "I do not want to see the government close because of snow again."

Obama was speaking at a White House forum on workplace flexibility Wednesday and used the days that snow forced federal offices in Washington to close as an example of why the public and private sectors should adopt some alternative arrangements, such as telework, for their employees.

The president said the government is committed to "practicing what we preach" with budget proposals that would increase funding for child care and provide grants to states to promote flexible work programs.

To demonstrate what can be done by allowing employees more choices, Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry announced that his agency is starting a pilot project with the developers of the Results-Only Work Environment.

ROWE is a management strategy that emphasizes evaluating workers on what they do, not where or when they do it. Berry said the pilot project will be implemented with 400 OPM employees, including his staff, over an eight-month period. The Deloitte consulting firm will evaluate the strategy.

If it works as well as he expects, Berry said, ROWE "will become the cornerstone in our effort to make the federal government the model employer for the 21st century" and to make "government cool again," he added, quoting Obama.

With a nod to the red tape that can tie Washington in knots, Berry said that if it can succeed in the federal government, "it can succeed anywhere."

Although the Obama administration is a strong supporter of policies that promote an appropriate balance between job responsibilities and home life, the government isn't always on the forefront of that effort.

"It does not have a good record," said Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, who attended the forum.

While some agencies, such as the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, are better than others, she said, trying to get a more flexible workplace "is a daily fight in a lot of agencies."

Too many managers are rigid in their approach to such things as telework and time off, she added. "It's treated as kind of a high-risk venture."

A few minutes later, Obama echoed Kelley's comments and noted the gender bias in attitudes on the subject.

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