When winter storms closed the federal government this past season, plenty of employees could continue working. They just weren’t required to go into their offices.
Since the adoption of telework opportunities in 2010, the number of federal employees with telework agreements has skyrocketed. And as telework-enabling technology continues to improve, employees can report for duty even when their physical offices are shut down, saving the government substantially in lost productivity.
Agencies realize plenty of other benefits, from reduced office space requirements to increased retention rates. Telework or telecommuting also can serve as a morale booster. Employees generally appreciate the ability to work from home on days when a doctor’s appointment or a scheduled home repair might otherwise keep them from doing so — not to mention the bonus of fewer commuting hours.
“There are wins in productivity gains, in employee engagement measures, in mission efficacy and cost savings to the American taxpayer,” says Mika Cross, director of work/life and flexible workplace strategy for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Presidential Action Reinforces Telework
President Obama signed an executive order in the summer of 2014 calling for agency heads to ensure flexible work options are available “to the maximum extent practicable” and to make employees aware that they have the right to request such flexibility. Perhaps more important, employees must be reassured that requesting a flexible work schedule will not be viewed as negative.
“You see an upward trend governmentwide,” says Cross. Telework is “absolutely on the rise.”
When agencies began to support telework more than a decade ago, desktops and dial-up connections were the norm, and connecting workers remotely to their office was a major challenge.
Today, most employees — especially those in large metropolitan areas like Washington, D.C. — access high-speed Internet in their homes. More employees use notebooks or mobile devices as workstations, making the work experience similar no matter where they find themselves.
“I think the technology is pretty much there,” says Shawn P. McCarthy, research director for IDC Government Insights.
The Technology That Supports Telework
Telecommuters typically connect to an agency’s network through a virtual private network (VPN) or other encrypted connection, allowing access to all of the information needed to work. Improved collaboration solutions such as video conferencing tools also can replicate the interactivity of an office environment.
Patricia Rice, acting deputy assistant secretary in the Office of Human Resources Management of the Veterans Affairs Department, says security continues to improve as well. The department can now firewall information from a remote location, removing a key barrier early teleworking agencies faced.
In the last five years, the number of VA employees with telework agreements has quadrupled, from 4,900 in 2010 to more than 21,000.
As the variety and types of communication technologies available continue to evolve, those workers’ experiences also improve. “You have FaceTime and GoToMeeting and Lync — those types of tools that make it easier to be connected to the work site,” Rice says.
Telework Benefits and Challenges
“Some people think about the distance and the absence” when considering telework, says Marjorie Ames, executive director of the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs. “What we think about is the connectivity.”
The bureau faces the challenge of providing telework access for employees based not only in the United States but also around the world.
The agency uses communication and collaboration technologies to support workers designated as “domestic employees teleworking overseas,” or DETOs. The designation allows the agency to place employees in U.S.-based job positions even while they live in different parts of the world.
“A lot of our officers are in dual-career households,” Ames says. “This new agreement allows Foreign Service Officers to work in positions that are designated domestically when they travel with a spouse to serve overseas. It also helps us with nepotism concerns: We want to make sure we provide great opportunities, but when a spouse is the deputy chief of mission, it’s difficult to work under him or her.”
Rice says telework opportunities also allow for greater continuity of operations in the case of emergencies such as natural disasters. “Employees say they have fewer interruptions because they’re not having people stop by their office to socialize with them,” Rice says.
Telework Adoption Is Growing, But Still Has Room for Improvement
In 2012, 267,000 employees across 81 agencies had telework agreements, up from 145,000 the year before, according to 2013’s “Status of Telework in the Federal Government” report. Still, while telework is growing quickly, adoption is far from universal. According to the same report, only 14 percent of all federal employees teleworked during the previous fiscal year. About half of the VA’s eligible employees telework to some degree, but only 12 percent of the agency’s workers are eligible. Employees like doctors and cemetery grounds-keepers, for example, simply need to be onsite to do their jobs.
The top barrier to implementing telework is management resistance, a factor that beat out other concerns surrounding technology, budgets and security.
Stephen Smith, CIO at the Farm Credit Administration, says that communication and clear expectations are vital to creating the trust necessary for an effective telework program.
“There has to be a clear understanding of the work that’s going to be performed and the work product or the result that will be achieved, both from the supervisor’s perspective and the employee’s perspective,” Smith says. “There’s an expectation of a high degree of communication between the supervisor and the employee on an ongoing basis, and also between the employee and the employee’s peers.”
“I remember a decade or so ago when some of these technologies were introduced and there were people that predicted they would end business travel,” Ames says. “We have not seen that. We have certainly seen more collaborative efforts from different locations through technology. It’s more accepted than it has been in the past, and people really appreciate the benefits.”