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Federal employees' work-life balance is still on shaky ground

By Joe Davidson
Wednesday, May 5, 2010; B03

When it comes to helping federal employees develop a good balance between work and personal lives, Uncle Sam talks a good game, but his actions fall short.

Witnesses at a congressional hearing Tuesday agreed on the need for greater flexible work arrangements in the government. But many also agreed that although the government has made important steps in the right direction, it is moving too slowly and is meeting too much resistance from within.

During the past 35 years, most federal agencies have "developed an impressive variety of supports" for workers, Kathleen Lingle, executive director of the Alliance for Work-Life Progress, told a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee.

That sounds good. But the problem is the lack of a coordinated program, in addition to management resistance. Add those together, and you have an organizational culture that does not welcome change.

"What is striking today is that for the most part, the federal sector is not harnessing the full power of work-life effectiveness as the most inexpensive and intrinsically motivating driver of attraction, engagement and retention available in the 21st century," Lingle said. "The notable gap in the federal environment is a failure to deploy work-life as an overarching organizational strategy, one that has a demonstrated capacity to engage the minds and hearts of any labor force."

Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service, told the subcommittee that his think tank estimates that the government workforce is likely to increase by more than 273,000 critical positions by 2012.

The Obama administration is aware of the government's shortcomings and has tried to get in front of the issue. President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama spoke at a recent White House conference on work-life balance. John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, was a key participant and has pushed agencies, starting with his own, to grant employees more flexibility.

Jonathan Foley, a senior adviser to Berry, told the subcommittee that oversees the federal workforce that OPM is reviewing its regulations and guidance on alternative work schedules "to provide maximum flexibility to federal agencies to assist them in implementing these flexible arrangements."

He reported on OPM's pilot programs in worker wellness and the Results Only Work Environment, which emphasizes getting the job done rather than where it is done. "Not only is it easier for us to do our work almost anywhere, it is easier for us to do our work anytime," he said. "This means that we can schedule our work around responsibilities and events that in the past would have required us to take time off from work."

Teleworking, of course, is a key factor in flexible work arrangements. But although everyone seems to agree that it is a good thing, implementing it is another story. Foley cited 2008 survey data indicating that 49 percent of federal agencies report "management resistance remains a major barrier to telework." Almost a third said computer security and funding for information technology "each are significant barriers to the use of telework."

Subcommittee Chairman Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) started the hearing by saying that it is fitting to air these issues now, during Public Service Recognition Week. "The federal government is the largest employer in the United States," he said, "and we can lead by example."

But the example the government is setting is uneven. Uncle Sam is taking the right steps, although too slowly and erratically. Joseph P. Flynn, a national vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said government workers tell the union they are considering jobs in private companies or other organizations "that offer a better work-life balance than their agency."

Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said that the federal government "is losing ground" because "employers who follow dated policies and practices that limit workplace flexibility do not serve the interests of either the employer or the employee -- and when that employer is the federal government, it does not serve the interests of its citizens, either."

One thing that can keep federal employers competitive, Kelley said, is top bosses rewarding lower-level managers who allow their staff members greater workplace flexibility. Any savings generated by the increased productivity that flexibility might generate should go back to the agency or its employees, she said.

The increase in productivity could result in part from fewer unplanned days off. With the proper training, equipment and security precautions, the federal government won't have to close for emergencies, as its District offices did during the big snows this winter. Instead of snow days, the government would declare "mobile work days."

"By creating a mobile workforce," Foley said, "employees will always be able to work no matter where they are located."

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