The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Telework, once a ‘mom perk,’ keeps government humming during snow storms

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“Presenteeism – the practice of sitting at one’s desk without really working can be just as problematic as absenteeism, and I’m an adamant supporter of telework because workers in an effective telework program can only be judged by their results.”  —Former OPM Director, John Berry

On Tuesday morning, snow and ice covered the streets around Mika Cross’ home in southern Maryland. Commuter accidents clogged roadways. Her kids’ school closed because of the stormy weather. Many businesses, medical offices and shops were shuttered. And Cross’ employer, the federal government decided to shut down.

But for Cross and thousands of federal and private sector workers who can work remotely, or telework, Tuesday was just a typical work day. Except that her kids, at her ex-husband’s house, played in the snow all day and she, instead of getting in a workout at lunch, shoveled snow.

She got up, checked the weather report, made a cup of tea, let the dogs out, then commuted a few steps to her home office in a corner nook of her bedroom. She opened  her laptop and by 7:30 a.m., began a full and productive day.

Cross not only runs the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Work/Life and Wellness Program,  along with a coworker in Tennessee, she is an active participant in those programs. In any given week, about one-third of the entire 100,000 federal workforce at USDA is busy teleworking, like Cross, a mother of two, does all the time.

The USDA teleworking policy, a big priority for the agency and part of its move to transform its work culture since 2010, Cross said, not only has increased employee satisfaction, but has saved the department money and increased productivity.

“Telework enhances the ability to continue the mission of USDA during unplanned events, inclement weather and other circumstances,” she said. On a day that the government closes down, like on Tuesday, those with formal telework agreements are expected to work as usual if it is their scheduled telework day, she said. If it’s not – Cross had been scheduled to make her hour-long commute by car and Metro downtown on Tuesday – employees can decide whether to telework. She chose to work.

Cross said that while 70 percent of USDA workers are eligible to telework, at least 20 percent do so regularly in a given pay period, and at least another 10 percent telework on an ad hoc or situational basis, like Tuesday.

The federal government, in fact, was one of the early pioneers of telework, with the first push coming during the bird flu pandemic scare in the early 2000s, and the biggest push after the massive 2009-2010 snow storms, dubbed Snowmageddon, that shuttered the federal government for days and led to the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010.

“That was a real turning point,” said Cindy Auten, general manager of The Mobile Work Exchange, an organization that advises the federal government on how to implement and expand telework programs. “When the administration came out and said, ‘This is unacceptable,’ it changed the way agencies looked at snow closures and how they operated, especially after the Office of Personnel Management reported that the federal government saved $30 million each day in productivity by having a telecommuting workforce.”

Now, Auten said, Commuter Connections in the D.C. area estimates that the number of federal employee teleworkers, either regularly or on an ad hoc basis, has jumped from 16 percent in 2007 to 38 percent in 2013. Further, she said, in an OPM employee survey, telework was the only category out of 84 that has seen continual increases in satisfaction year after year.

Auten herself made a five-second commute to her basement office in Winchester, Virginia Tuesday morning – as her caregiver husband played with their two children in the snow – instead of attempting a commute into the city that she estimates could have taken her as long as three hours one way.

“I absolutely do not have six hours of time to spend in the car, so teleworking is a huge productivity gain back for me,” Auten said. “I’ve got two kids, three and one and a half. I work full time. Balance is so important to me. When I telecommute, I can get my work done, but not lose out on dinner time and bed time. That means more to me than a salary increase.”

The federal government has also been a pioneer in other innovative work practices like “hoteling” – planning for a more mobile workforce by having fewer desks than employees, and requiring employees who want to work in the office to reserve desks like one would reserve a hotel room. With that philosophy, the General Services Agency remodeled its headquarters in downtown with room for 2,500 of their 4,000 employees, Auten said.

And when the Defense Information Systems Agency was slated to move from Virginia to Maryland and found that 70 percent of its workforce didn’t want to go, it built a robust, secure telework program in order to retain its knowledgeable and experienced workforce, she said.

But while the federal government has been a pioneer, it has fallen behind the rapid expansion of telework in the private sector, which has been growing at a rate of about 10 percent per year, said Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics, a research and consulting firm on innovative workplace practices.

She recently published a research paper compiling 4,000 different studies, business cases and articles and estimated that about 28 percent of the federal workforce is currently eligible and wants to telework. If that 28 percent telecommuted just two days a week, she figured taxpayers would save $6 billion a year in real estate savings, productivity increases, continuity of operations, a reduction in absenteeism, presenteeism, turnover, healthcare costs and other factors.

And if 45 percent of the federal workforce in “telework compatible” jobs worked remotely 2.5 days a week, Lister estimates taxpayers could save $11 billion a year.

Telework, Lister, Auten and others said, has shifted from being a ‘nice to have’ option to give employees (read: working mothers) better work-life balance, to being about the business case: the cost savings, ability to attract and retain workers, better life satisfaction for all employees — both men and women, parents and childless — and the productivity boosts of remote workers, especially on days when all operations would normally cease, like during a snow storm.

For Danette Campbell, who directs the telework program at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and about 73 percent of the 11,000 employees who telework between one and five days a week, Tuesday was just business as usual. Except she worked from her home office in La Plata, Maryland, rather than in the headquarters miles away in Alexandria.

PTO studies have found that full-time teleworkers examine 3.5 times more patents every year than their colleagues who come into the office. They save the agency $22 million in avoided real estate and office costs. Because they aren’t commuting, they aren’t in cars polluting the air or clogging roads. In surveys, teleworking employees say they are happier, more engaged in their work and have more time for their lives. Their attrition rate is lower. And work can continue despite what the weather does – or doesn’t – do.

In fact, Campbell said, while many other agencies have shut down and work all but halted during previous storms, like Snowmageddon and Hurricane Sandy, teleworking employees maintain productivity rates as high as 93 percent.

Campbell said Tuesday was a busy day of virtual meetings, emails, writing reports and preparing agendas. “The only real difference,” she said, “is that I didn’t have to brave the elements and commute to Alexandria.”