Federal Telework Year One Review: Progress Made, Barriers Remain

By Roy Maurer Dec 22, 2011
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One ​year after President Barack Obama signed the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 into law on Dec. 9, 2010, some federal agencies are announcing notable advancements in telework implementation, but evidence suggests that employees feel that progress isn’t moving fast enough.

The telework law grants eligible federal employees the option to telework and requires federal agencies to establish telework policies and eligibility notifications and to designate a telework managing officer for each agency.

In addition, the law directs government agencies to:

  • Establish interactive training programs for teleworkers and telework managers.
  • Include telework in continuity-of-operations plans.
  • Provide annual progress reports to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).
  • Require all teleworkers to sign a written agreement establishing specific work arrangements.
  • Treat teleworkers and nonteleworkers equally for the purpose of performance evaluation.

The OPM was designated to provide oversight and management support to assist federal agencies with telework initiatives; the Office of Management and Budget was directed to provide agencies with guidance for purchasing computer systems and other technology devices and equipment that enable telework.

Since the passage of the telework law, more government agencies have made progress and adopted telework not only as a way to save money but also as a way to support work/life balance, according to panelists who took part in a webinar hosted by the Telework Exchange, a public-private partnership that advocates for the federal teleworker community.

The Library of Congress, for example, has seen 300 percent growth in staff teleworking in the 18 months ending December 2011, said Baha Akpinar, telework expansion program manager at the library’s Office of Strategic Initiatives/Information Technology Services.

Nearly 600 employees out of 3,500 staff telework in various degrees, with the majority doing so two to four days per pay period. “We’re no longer in the experimental pilot mode,” Akpinar pointed out, adding that productivity increases of 20 percent to 30 percent have been noted. In addition, “Managers and employees involved in telework alike have reported high satisfaction levels. It works well for them and it helps them, and that’s why we’ve achieved this level of growth,” Akpinar said.

George Jakabcin, chief information officer at the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA), said 83 percent of the agency’s 826 employees nationwide had participated in a telework program at the end of 2011, with 50 percent participating at a full (four to five days per week) or expanded (two to three days per week) level. Telework adoption, which began at TIGTA in 2003, has allowed the agency to close 15 locations and reduce square footage in four others, which has led to cost savings, Jakabcin said.

“We use telework not only to get our work done but also to recruit and retain employees and to support employees’ work/life balance,” he said.

Initially, the program met with some resistance, Jakabcin said. “But the end results have shown that all the effort paid off, with employee morale a very big win and satisfaction levels at an all-time high.”

Security Is Key

All the panelists said security is key to making managers and employees comfortable with telework.

Jakabcin said all teleworkers must go through annual security awareness and privacy awareness training at TIGTA. They must renew their telework agreements each year, acknowledging their personal obligations for securing data in a telework environment. Jakabcin said all teleworkers at TIGTA use a virtual private network (VPN) to access agency information from their telework locations. “VPN is absolutely critical,” he said. “We have gone to great lengths to ensure that security is rock solid.”

Akpinar said the Library of Congress established a new laptop core configuration to deal with the security issues that telework can bring. He said the enhanced security features have benefited all employees, not just those teleworking.

Fortuitously, TIGTA happened to combine telework implementation with a hardware refresh in 2003, when all employees were provided laptops. “Not everyone is happy with a laptop, with its screen size and weight, but that tends to dissipate over time,” Jakabcin said.

In addition, TIGTA supported creating office environments in people’s homes and equipping employees with laptops, printers, fax machines, copiers and webcams, based on their level of participation and responsibilities.

Notably, TIGTA does not allow the use of non-TIGTA equipment on its network. “While many times vendors are keen to tell you that they can secure your cell phone or tablet, by and large those tablets and smart phones are still vendor-bound,” Jakabcin said.

Still, telework programs are a work in progress, the panelists said. They noted steps to improve IT services and expand collaboration tools. Akpinar said his agency is moving toward a “one-PC-per-user” policy, which represents tremendous savings.

To expand on the telework efforts at the library, 2012 will see more implementation of cloud-based applications and enhanced collaboration tools. The library will launch pilot programs for office sharing and hoteling, Akpinar said.

Not Moving Fast Enough

A new survey shows that a high percentage of federal managers trust their employees to work from a remote location, although just more than half allow employees to do so. Telework efforts are stifled because of a lack of policies, technology and security guidelines, according to the study.

The survey of more than 300 federal and private-sector IT executives by FedScoop, a government IT media group, Hewlett-Packard and Intel Corp., found that 90 percent of federal managers trust their team to work from a remote location. But while 91 percent of federal employees said they are interested in teleworking, only 61 percent said their managers allow them to telework. Sixty-nine percent of federal employees said federal telework progress is not moving fast enough. And while three out of four federal employees said that their agency has designated a telework coordinator, only 56 percent said they had met that person. On the issue of security, 84 percent of federal employees said they are concerned about a cyberattack on their organization, and three out of four believe that their network could experience critical failure. Forty-three percent of federal employees said they need better equipment and technology in order to telework effectively.

“The results of the survey showed us that although government managers report trusting their employees to work remotely, the practices aren’t necessarily in place to make this possible,” said Goldy Kamali, founder and president of FedScoop. “Overall, most respondents felt that government teleworking policies should be progressing at a faster rate,” he said.

Respondents were asked to name what they see as the top benefits to telework:

  • 89 percent said it saves them time.
  • 86 percent said it enhances their quality of life.
  • 79 percent said it saves them money.
  • 75 percent said it increases productivity.
  • 72 percent like telework for its environmental benefits.
  • 54 percent said it allows them to spend more time with their families.

“Executive sponsorship and support for telework in response to the Telework Enhancement Act has made all the difference in adoption,” Akpinar said. “Telework doesn’t happen as a grassroots effort. Some managers still don’t embrace or support telework, but these are now in the minority,” he said.

Even if progress is slow, there is still great enthusiasm among federal employees for teleworking, according to the survey.

“Hopefully by the time we get these policies finalized, through legal and through everybody’s review, we’ll actually be able to see more and more increases in telework over the coming year,” said Telework Exchange General Manager Cindy Auten.

The Future of Federal Telework

What’s next for federal telework?

Jay Morwick, business operations manager at Cisco’s Six Sigma Center of Excellence, said the focus of telework in 2012 is going to change, in large part as a result of increased managerial buy-in for telework.

“Perhaps the future discussion in 2012 and beyond will actually focus more around technology and ensuring employees have the right equipment to telework effectively vs. worrying about whether productivity will drop once a worker moves from a traditional office to a home office,” he said.

The concept of telework could soon be history, Morwick added. “Instead of telework and teleworkers, the terminology is likely to shift to ‘mobility’ and ‘mobile workers,’ ” he said. Teleworkers are still, conceptually at least, tied to a workplace, even if it’s outside of their office. “Mobility, empowered by smart phones and other portable devices, connotes a wider range of choices and more freedom. Being able to do what you want, where you want, is extremely important,” he said.

“While some agencies and offices will continue to face management resistance and other barriers to ​progress, in general it seems that the telework focus has shifted more to enabling secure, reliable teleworker access and communications with effective technology implementation,” Auten said. “Overall, public-sector workplaces are evolving to be more mobile and place greater emphasis on processes and tools that improve sustainability, increase cost savings and support workplace flexibility,” she said.

For telework to be a success, there must be a level of trust between supervisor and staff, and among colleagues, Akpinar said. He said training for nonteleworkers on how to interact with their remote colleagues is an important part of his agency’s telework plan going forward.

“In job roles with a good fit for telework, trust and productivity have increased greatly after the adoption of telework. It helps the teams focus on the results, the outcomes and the work that they’re doing instead of just following the routine of coming in to work,” Akpinar said.

Roy Maurer is a staff writer for SHRM.

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