Snowstorm's possible plus: Advancing cause of telework

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 Joe Davidson
Thursday, February 11, 2010

The snow may have closed federal offices this week, but that doesn't mean federal workers aren't working.

About one-third of the D.C. area employees at the Office of Personnel Management and the General Services Administration logged on to their agencies' mainframe computers, probably from their homes, according to OPM Director John Berry.

If the stats for those agencies are indicative of what happened around town, then the blizzard of 2010 may mark a real turning point in Uncle Sam's approach to telework.

"The only upside of this storm is that federal managers have been working from home," said Steve O'Keeffe, executive director of Telework Exchange. His organization advocates for telework and is supported by computer companies that would benefit from greater teleworking. But that funding doesn't detract from the truth of his statement.

An August OPM report cited management resistance to teleworking as one of the main obstacles to its spread in the federal government. "The biggest barrier to teleworking is a cultural mind-set that believes if you are not physically there . . . you must be eating bonbons," said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.).

But with so many bosses snowed in with the rest of us, that might change.

The OPM report said just 8.7 percent of eligible federal employees teleworked in 2008, although Berry said that may reflect only those with formal telework agreements. In addition to stubborn supervisors, office coverage and culture, both of which can be tied to the way managers manage, were listed as the main barriers to telecommuting.

Too many managers apparently believe they can't manage what, or whom, they can't see. Maybe they don't trust their workers. Maybe they are afraid of change.

One problem, says Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service, is the government doesn't really know how to manage performance. "If you know what good work is and you can hold people accountable," he said, "it shouldn't matter if they are in eye or ear shot or at home or in the office."

A big issue, says Bill Bransford, general counsel of the Senior Executives Association, is the impression among supervisors that some employees have "a sense of entitlement" to work at home, then act as if they don't want to be bothered with calls from co-workers and customers when they aren't in the office.

Whatever the reluctance to expanding teleworking, Mother Nature may inspire a reexamination of its value. Value is a key word here. If Uncle Sam provided his workers with laptops, the cost of equipment would be covered by the estimated $100 million a day the government loses when offices in Washington close, Berry said.

Some agencies learned the value of telecommuting years ago. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is a telework success story. More than 80 percent of its eligible staff do some telework, according to agency figures.

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