Dec 31 2009

The Long and Winding Road

Photo: Ron Aira
Deborah Cohn, group director of PTO's trademark law offices

The administration has set target goals. Lawmakers have threatened sanctions. And most feds say they want to do it. So why do so few federal employees work from home or telework centers?

Federal law requires agencies to offer all eligible employees the option of telecommuting. Lawmakers—fueled by the slow growth of federal telework, which the Office of Personnel Management last year pegged at just 5.6 percent of workers governmentwide—passed a law that allows $5 million fines if the departments of Commerce, Justice and State as well as the Securities and Exchange Commission and Small Business Administration fail to make telework options available to their workers. And Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, has threatened to extend the sanction to all agencies.

Although the number of federal teleworkers has almost doubled in recent years—from 53,000 in 2001 to nearly 103,000 in 2003, according to OPM's annual federal telework report of last May—that number represents a small portion of the workforce.

The barriers to broader telework adoption turn on cultural and technical issues. Government managers voice concerns about maintaining worker productivity levels, coming up with funding to equip telecommuters, providing necessary gear and making sure offsite workers don't put systems at risk of security breaches.

Security is by far the paramount concern, according to a recent pair of CDW•G surveys of federal executives. Of the 249 respondents, 39 percent cited security as the number one reason to keep government workers in their offices. Productivity ranked second, at a distant 23 percent.

Telework advocates acknowledge the validity of the concerns but also say the concerns should not prevent agencies from granting employees telecommuting privileges.

The technical tools exist, says technology consultant Gil Gordon, of Gil Gordon Associates in Monmouth Junction, N.J.

"We're not starved for technology," Gordon says. "It's more [a case of] management attitudes. There are ways to do those things—performance management and security. Sometimes they require extra effort, but nothing extraordinary."

Managers can track performance by regularly reviewing employees' work against set requirements and deadlines. The primary tools, from notebook PCs and videoconferencing software to virtual private networks and security applications, exist to meet the needs of most teleworkers, Gordon says. Plus, the money saved from reducing office space could help pay for the hardware, software and additional help desk needs of the teleworking employees, he adds.

Overcoming Barriers

For more than a decade, government leaders have encouraged agencies to offer telecommuting to employees to ease traffic congestion, use as an employee retention and recruitment tool, and save money on office space. In a post-9/11 world, there's also the need for continuity of operations if a terrorist attack or natural disaster were to prevent workers from getting to their offices.

To boost telework, the government relies not only on mandates and fines but also on an ongoing educational campaign. OPM and the General Services Administration provide training and other resources to managers and employees, including implementation guides.

Additionally, GSA has set up 15 telework centers across the metropolitan Washington area where agencies can pay a fee for employee stations. The idea behind the centers is that home is not the best work environment for some employees, but they don't necessarily need to commute all the way to the main office. A center near a worker's home might provide an alternative that still meshes with the broader objectives of telecommuting.

Use of the centers has been less than stellar: about 650 employees, with nearly 500 spots still available. To draw more agencies, GSA recently offered to waive the first month's fee for each new teleworker, a savings of roughly $100 per user a month.

The indifference that CIOs and senior IT management have shown toward telework is partly to blame for slow adoption, some feds say. An agency's IT staff must assist top management and the workforce in making sure the technical tools and support exist to make teleworking a viable option, says Stanley Kaczmarczyk, deputy associate administrator of GSA for real property.

The CDW•G survey found that the government's IT teams have largely ignored telework:

  • Twenty-two percent of those surveyed say their agencies have uniform policies for providing gear to teleworkers.
  • Thirty-three percent say they have programs for providing tech support to telecommuters.
  • But in both instances, many of the respondents had no idea whether their agencies had established telework IT policies or tech support—45 percent and 37 percent, respectively.

"Telework only happens through the will of senior management, but CIOs have a strong responsibility," Kaczmarczyk says. "You need all the separate silos to work together."

Despite these challenges, the Patent and Trademark Office is making telecommuting work. The agency began with a pilot in 1997, letting 18 lawyers who examine trademarks work from home several times a week.

PTO measured their productivity and quality of work and found positive results, so it expanded the program, says Deborah Cohn, group director of PTO's trademark law offices. Now 150 lawyers, or about half those who are part of the trademark side of the agency, work from home four days a week.

The telecommuting lawyers, who review and approve trademark applications, share desks and take turns coming into the office. The agency has managed to cut its workspace requirement from 150 desks to 30. That adds up to a savings of $1.5 million a year on office space costs alone, Cohn says.

There's a great side effect for people, she adds: "It's made the agency a much more family-friendly organization. It's great for morale and improves quality of life."

PTO considers teleworking a privilege that its lawyers must earn. A trademark lawyer who wants to telecommute must be on staff for at least two years before applying and then his supervisor must approve the arrangement. The agency holds lunchtime training sessions for new teleworkers, provides telecommuting guidelines, and sets defined expectations and requirements for each employee, such as how often a worker must check e-mail and voice mail each day.

The program established new responsibilities for managers as well. They must review telework employees' job performance and accomplishments every two weeks. To keep their privileges, employees must meet the requirements of their telework agreements and be "fully successful" in all facets of their jobs, Cohn says.

IT support plays a big role in PTO's success with telework, she adds. In fact, the agency holds a telework team meeting weekly with reps from its management groups and systems staff.

The basic telework gear provided by the agency is a desktop computer and printer. PTO also covers the cost of a second phone line and high-speed Internet access. The IT staff visits each teleworker's home to install and set up the systems and provides helpdesk support via phone.

Teleworkers can access the agency's databases from home. To maintain security, the at-home lawyers connect to their office records using a virtual private network. The VPN authenticates telecommuters each time they access PTO systems by using a random number generator that creates one-time-use passwords. The agency also houses its applications behind firewalls and relies on antivirus programs and intrusion-detection tools to thwart malware and hackers.

PTO permits telecommuting for all employees who can work from home. Receptionists, for example, aren't allowed to telework because they need to be in the office. Even so, the agency plans to let 40 additional trademark lawyers begin teleworking this year.

By slowly expanding its telework program, PTO's chiefs feel they have made the program successful without placing undue stress on day-to-day operations, she says.

But PTO is not the only telework game in Washington. The Labor Department has had similar success. Its program is comparable to PTO's. It sets requirements for workers who telecommute and provides a suite of tools.

But for extra security, Labor lets its teleworkers use only government-issued computers. PTO and Labor's approach to supplying systems to their employees is different from most agencies, according to CDW•G's survey, which found that 67 percent of teleworkers use their own computers.

Labor wasn't comfortable with that idea, says deputy CIO Tom Wiesner. The IT team sets the configurations, he adds. "They're locked down, people can't load software, and it's virus-safe."

To save money, the department recycles in-house computers it's replacing and refurbishes them for use by teleworkers.

As the telework program at the Institute of Museum and Library Services illustrates, however, sometimes a lack of IT is not the chief or even a reason to keep folks from working at home. The institute, a small independent agency that manages federal grant programs for museums and libraries, doesn't have a large IT budget, but that hasn't stopped it from embracing telework.

On the Home Front

The agency provides none of its 60 employees with PCs to work from home, but 25 percent of them telecommute from time to time, technology officer Barbara Smith says. Employees who telework use their own computers and access the institute's Microsoft Outlook e-mail via the Web; they even pay for their own Internet access. For security, the institute trains workers how to use antivirus, personal firewalls and other safety tools.

But Smith says the work many of the institute's staff members do at home requires no computer. For instance, employees frequently take thick paper reports home to peruse, she says.

Whether an agency's telecommuting efforts focus on IT-driven work or simply report reading, officials who coordinate telework projects say the government has made progress on work-at-home programs. Over time, telecommuting will expand, particularly as older workers retire and younger employees replace them.

"You have to let time pass a bit," says Jennifer Koh, worklife program officer at Labor. "Some people find management or IT as barriers, but they just have to get used to the idea. It's a huge organizational culture change."