Can a Mobile Workforce Better Serve Citizenry?


By Kathy Gurchiek September 17, 2013

The federal government is rethinking how it can use technology and workplace flexibility to deliver services more quickly and transparently to the public. Many trends—including social media, cloud computing and “big data”—are coming together to radically change how employees can be productive.

Speaking at the Mobile Work Exchange fall town hall meeting, Rick Holgate, Ph.D., PMP, chief information officer for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, pointed out that:

  • Where once employees worked on employer-provided equipment, today there is a proliferation of personal devices in the workplace.
  • Where once employees could access their company’s network only by physically being present in the office and on closed, proprietary systems, today connectivity is available nearly everywhere and access is available remotely and through cloud computing.
  • Where once e-mail was the only way to communicate electronically, today employers and workers have more options.

Citing an AOL Government Mobile Technology Study of 300 federal managers, conducted in March 2012, Holgate noted the benefit of providing employees “seamless remote connectivity and mobile access” where they work. About half of the managers in the study said employees would gain an average of seven hours in productivity each week if they were fully enabled to work via mobile devices.

The government’s digital strategy includes managing devices, applications and data in secure and affordable ways; improving the quality of its services to constituents; spurring innovation; and providing the American public and the government’s increasingly mobile workforce with access to high-quality digital government information and services anywhere, anytime, on any device.

The strategy is two-pronged, focused on both making the information more citizen-centric and delivering better services to the government’s mobile workforce. But having employees work remotely poses concerns and obstacles to the government (many of which private-sector businesses confront), including:

  • An organizational culture in which management styles rely on employees’ physical presence and there are risk-averse supervisors and workers.
  • Security issues.
  • Workloads that don’t lend themselves to mobility. Employees may need to be onsite to access the employer’s paper archives.
  • Technology infrastructure that doesn’t allow for remote access or virtual meetings.
  • Doubts as to whether telecommuting is as productive as being in the office, such as in the case of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s ban on teleworking.
  • Attachment to real estate and a cultural inertia that causes organizations to maintain office space.

Definition of telework:

“Ours tend to be fairly specific—work at a desk, as if [employees] were sitting in an office space in a federal building,” Holgate said of the federal government, but working remotely is “not about re-creating the office experience somewhere else; it’s about rethinking how we get work done.”

As for security issues, he speculated that the government will focus on securing data, not the devices themselves.

For those who are reluctant to telework because they fear it will be too isolating, Holgate noted that working remotely is not about simply interacting with one’s mobile device; rather, it can mean meeting somewhere other than a conference room at headquarters—perhaps somewhere more accessible to a larger group of people—or using teleconferencing.

“It’s an exciting time to be not just in IT but [to be a part of] what the federal workforce of the future looks like,” he said.

Holgate has served as assistant director for information technology and command information officer at the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, was a senior manager with BearingPoint Inc., and in his work at the MITRE Corp. supported the U.S. Air Force, Army and intelligence communities.

Kathy Gurchiek is the associate editor for HR News.


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