Obama administration pushing telework as bill is set for House

By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 7, 2010; 10:08 PM

The Obama administration is such a strong supporter of allowing federal employees to work from home that it even allowed a government official to be sworn in via telephone.

Because of the snowstorms earlier this year, Martha Johnson had no choice.

"I was sworn in from my kitchen, because we couldn't get out of the snow and get to Washington to do it that way," Johnson, head of the General Services Administration, said Thursday.

She and her husband had been shoveling snow in the driveway of their Annapolis home when she got the call, Johnson said Thursday at the Telework Exchange Town Hall Meeting in Washington.

"My husband looked like he was in his pajamas wearing his red snow suit," Johnson said. "What you do when you're sworn in is you have to hold your hand up and you have to speak and you have to put your hand on the Bible. Where do you put the cellphone? So my husband was holding the phone to my mouth, and I got sworn in. And that's another example of work from home or another unusual place."

The massive snowstorms even inspired President Obama to issue stern orders to John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management.

"The president made it clear to me that he doesn't want snow, nature, or any other cause to be able to stop our government," Berry told the conference. "Since OPM doesn't control the weather or the plows, telework is the only way to achieve the goal that the president very clearly set," Berry said.

The wider use and acceptance of telework is very much on the verge of reality. The Senate unanimously passed telework legislation last month and the House could do so during the lame-duck session. The bill would require federal agencies to appoint telework managers and incorporate the option into contingency operations.

Once it's passed, Berry, Johnson and others plan to make the option automatic for all federal employees who could do their jobs away from the office. (Zookeepers, park rangers, law enforcement officers, doctors, and officials with access to sensitive data couldn't telework.)

"It will boost morale, I would argue, it decreases distractions and it reduces time and the environmental impact of commuting," Berry said. "In example after example, it leads to happier, more productive employees. Newer workers want to take a laptop or iPad home or to a cafe."

Younger workers also want almost constant feedback from supervisors, "and they're happy to get that online," Berry said.

GSA is already working to determine which workers are eligible and ready to telework as renovations to its F Street NW headquarters will force most employees to move to D.C.'s NoMa district.

"We're dramatically shifting geography and for some people it's really a question of whether they want to battle all the way from Virginia all the way across the District or if teleworking is a good option for them," Johnson said in an interview.

As for the critics, Johnson said the option is an environmentally-friendly, cost-conscious option.

"The amount of money that we can save on this is a strong argument to the taxpayers that there is a larger business case here than is understood," Johnson said.

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