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Pope’s Visit Gives Feds Unique Chance To Test Telecommuting

By Rita Zeidner  5/2/2008

Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Washington, D.C., gave officials at the U.S. Transportation Department a rare opportunity to test the agency’s ability to carry out the nation’s business under extreme conditions—the arrival of 46,000 visitors to the area.

The agency, headquartered just a block from where the pope celebrated Mass April 17, didn’t give its approximately 5,000 or so D.C.-based workers the day off. But it did encourage them to work at home.

Agency officials knew the sheer number of teleworkers would tax its external computer networks to the max. But that didn’t stop them from proceeding as planned.

“Emergency response capability is something we all have to have,” Vice Admiral Thomas Barrett, deputy security for transportation, told several hundred federal government officials in Washington during a symposium on telecommuting held on Earth Day—a week after the pope had come and gone. The daylong conference was sponsored by The Telework Exchange, a public-private organization that promotes work-at-home programs.

“Telework is a 21st century solution to some of the challenges we face in transportation,” Barrett said, underscoring the potential of work-at-home programs to dramatically reduce traffic and thus improve air quality.

At one point, Barrett said, nearly 3,000 employees working at home that day were logged onto the agency’s network at one time—an extraordinary stress.

“We wanted to learn the lessons,” he said. “We wanted to see if we could make this work, and it did.”

But Barrett acknowledged that maintaining security continues to be a daunting challenge, particularly since much of the agency’s work supports national security initiatives.

Securing remote access against cyber-intrusion, he said, “is something we work very hard to keep up.”

A less Herculean challenge, he said, has been convincing agency managers to support telework programs. To help gain buy-in, he said, the agency has begun management training programs that coach supervisors in techniques for overseeing their work-at-home staff. These days, he said, an increasing number of managers are opting to work-at-home themselves.

“We flipped the bias,” he said. While managers once had to defend a decision to allow employees to work at home, now they must explain why a job isn’t telework eligible.

“I think the popularity [of telecommuting] will grow steadily, especially as managers become more comfortable and networks become more secure.”

Rita Zeidner is a senior writer for HR Magazine.

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