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Government Lags in Reaping Telework Benefits

June 18, 2010
By Robert K. Ackerman, SIGNAL Online Exclusive
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A factor as simple as purchasing desktop computers instead of laptop units may be a key clog holding back the flow of telework among U.S. federal government employees. A recent study has determined that only 23 percent of federal employees telework regularly or exclusively, compared to 64 percent of private-sector employees. And, 93 percent of federal employees state that being able to telework would make working for an organization more desirable.

Published by FedScoop, the report, titled “Telework 2010,” was underwritten by Intel Corporation and Cisco Systems, two major information technology (IT) providers to the federal government. Its findings draw from 177 respondents, 62 percent of whom are federal IT-related employees. The other 38 percent work in the private sector, and 47 percent of all respondents are in management positions.

The federal government would benefit from increased telework capabilities, the report states. Operational costs would be lower, environmental impact would be reduced, absenteeism would decline, and employee morale and retention would improve. Even more important, teleworking could help ensure continuity of government operations in the wake of a weather closure or even a terrorist attack.

Nigel Ballard, director of federal marketing at Intel, blames longstanding government culture for the slow pace of government telework adoption. Many middle managers who are only a few years away from retirement are the primary roadblocks to its increased use. These managers rely on traditional, direct human-to-human interaction in a physical work environment, and they are loath to implement significant changes as they near the end of their government careers, he states.

Ballard cites the use of desktop versus laptop computers as a significant finding in the study. While the private sector supplies its employees with laptops, the federal government still is largely purchasing desktops through old procurement contracts—even though government is supposed to procure computers through new contracts using Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) guidelines. As a result, 22 percent of federal employees report that their organizations do not supply them with the technology needed to telework. In comparison, only 6 percent of private-sector employees report the same shortcoming.

This problem was brought home during the weeklong snow closures that plagued the Washington, D.C., area in February 2010. A total of 92 percent of federal employees reported that their offices closed as a result, but only 37 percent of private-sector workers endured closures. Only about 23 percent of federal employees were able to telework during the snows, largely because many lacked the means.

Teleworking also could reduce the effect of a terrorist attack on the nation’s capital. An employee base distributed throughout the region would be less affected than if all the workers were concentrated in the affected area.

Ballard notes that many government managers are coming around to the benefits of telework, both for productivity and for attracting and retaining skilled employees. More widespread acceptance of telework not only may be necessary to attract high-quality, new workers, it also could mitigate the tsunami of retirements expected this decade. Experienced employees might stay in the government work force longer if they are able to enjoy the benefits of telework.

“Work is something you do, not someplace you go,” he declares.

Among the report’s recommendations to government are to empower management through telework training programs, emplace performance standards and procedures for managers to track results, and encourage managers to work with their agency’s designated telework coordinator. The government also should increase access to telework information on agency websites, encourage agency employee discussion of telework benefits and draw from telework programs that have been successful in similar business contexts.

To maintain proper information security, the government should ensure that all remote workers are issued EPEAT laptops with effective security capabilities, train employees extensively on password security and data backup, and produce a written policy on secure computing. All public employees also should be trained specifically to work security from remote locations, and they should be equipped with industry standard virtual private network software for remote access, the report states.