Despite the benefits of remote work, government agencies are failing to meet mandates to encourage workers to telecommute, says a study by the Telework Exchange.
A study released Jan. 22 by the Telework Exchange, a group that facilitates the growth of telecommuting, reveals that most federal agencies and many federal managers are far from meeting their mandated requirements to have their employees work from home or other remote sites. While some agencies, notably in the Department of Defense, have met the requirements, others have made little if any effort to comply with Congressional and Administration mandates.
Agencies failing to meet those requirements are violating the law, and in the process are wasting millions of federal dollars during times of tight budgets and vast deficits. In addition, the federal work force is suffering massive turnover, while new employees are slow to appear, the study says.
The study, underwritten by Tandberg Federal, a division of Tandberg, reports that there are several reasons that federal managers fail to allow their employees to work from home or remote teleworking centers.
The primary reasons include simply not knowing that theyre required to do so, and fears that they will lose control of their workers if they cant watch them at work on a constant basis. Strangely, the stated needs of the federal government that workers be dispersed to protect against disaster or to help prevent spreading of infection during a pandemic are barely acknowledged.
"Is the requirement something the agencies understand? Only 35 percent of managers believe that agencies support telework," said Steve OKeeffe, executive director of the Telework Exchange, based in Arlington, Va. OKeeffe said a great deal of the problem has to do with how federal managers actually work. "Managers need to understand how to manage their employees, not just how to look at them work," he said.
OKeeffe said there are other issues as well, chief among them being communication within the agencies. Many managers simply dont know whats required of them, he said. In addition, there are problems with the requirements themselves.
"There are far too many priorities, too many mandates," OKeeffe said. "If you tried to comply with every one, you wouldnt manage it. It doesnt seem that funding is the principal issue, its communication and training."
In addition to a lack of knowledge about how to manage remote workers, many managers simply dont understand remote work, said Joel Brunson, president of Tandberg Federal. "Managers need to understand that teleworkers work longer hours, have longer attention spans, take fewer breaks," he said. "They are more productive on the days they telework than when theyre in the office." He said managers need to learn to use performance-based metrics, rather than just assume people arent working if no one can see them.
However, not all managers are struggling with the system. "My office is the primary user of telecommuting, because of the way we work. About 93 percent of my employees participate," said Michael Phillips, deputy inspector general for Audit for the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, in Washington.
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Phillips said that in his agency, whether an employee telecommutes is not an all-or-nothing decision. "There are several different layers," he explained. "Full participation [is when employees work remotely all of the time], expanded is three to four days a week, and limited is one to two days per week." He said there are also "episodic teleworkers," employees who work remotely for specific projects.
Phillips said his agency, TIGTA, has put some strong rules in force to make sure that employees work as theyre supposed to. "We set up strong policies and procedures and established an agreement that the employees and the manager sign that employees [will] actually focus on their work," Phillips said. "As part of the agreement, we make sure that its specific-assignment- or task-based as to what the employee is assigned and working on while theyre telecommuting."
Phillips said the move to teleworking has saved his agency money. "Weve returned vast amounts of space in Atlanta and Dallas to GSA because we didnt need it," he said, adding that TIGTA saves about 100,000 dollars per year per location. He said that as other leases come due, he plans to take the same action in other cities. Phillips also said that the change has markedly improved retention: His employees arent leaving for other agencies. Instead they stay until they retire, and they frequently dont retire early.
In addition, there have been unexpected benefits. "Were surprised at the flexibility this allows us now," Phillips said. "You might have a manager in one location, and have staff throughout the country."
OKeeffe, meanwhile, said he thinks that events may force reluctant agencies to allow telecommuting. "As the days get closer on BRAC [Base Realignment and Closure] it drives urgency," he said. He explained that allowing telecommuting will let defense agencies retain valued employees without making them move to a new location.
One primary reason for the teleworking mandate is to help the federal government cope with a pandemic. "Finding dead birds in Austin will prioritize the issue," OKeeffe said. "In terms of avian flu, its not a matter of if, but when. Who is going to care for America if Uncle Sam calls in sick? If youre not adopting telework in your SOP [standard operating procedure], people arent going to know how to do it."
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OKeeffe said there are hopeful signs: For example, one general in the Department of Defense is requiring his employees to explain why workers are not telecommuting as much as possible when they have their performance reviews. OKeeffe said such actions mean that as many as 30 percent of employees at some agencies will become telecommuters when bases move workers to new locations.
While there are challenges, such as helping employees used to working in teams learn to work remotely, Phillips said these problems can be overcome by having remote workers visit the office regularly for meetings.
OKeeffe said that in many cases, if managers just tried letting their employees telecommute, theyd be pleased with the improved productivity and lower costs. "Theyve got to try this, and the more they try it the more the false perceptions will fall away," he said.
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Wayne Rash is a Senior Analyst for eWEEK Labs and runs the magazine's Washington Bureau. Prior to joining eWEEK as a Senior Writer on wireless technology, he was a Senior Contributing Editor and previously a Senior Analyst in the InfoWorld Test Center. He was also a reviewer for Federal Computer Week and Information Security Magazine. Previously, he ran the reviews and events departments at CMP's InternetWeek.
He is a retired naval officer, a former principal at American Management Systems and a long-time columnist for Byte Magazine. He is a regular contributor to Plane & Pilot Magazine and The Washington Post.