Federal telework deadline highlights progress, lingering roadblocks

Telework participation hampered by lack of metrics, management support

A key deadline passed this week for federal agencies that are required by law to revamp their telework policies and notify all employees whether they are eligible to work from home.

Six months ago, President Obama signed legislation expanding the use of telework across the federal government. The initial implementation of the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 requires agencies to take steps to encourage teleworking, which despite many earlier efforts has stalled among federal employees. Specifically, agencies faced a June 7 deadline, by which time they must have established a telework policy, determined the eligibility for all employees of the agency to participate, and notified all employees of their eligibility to telework.

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In addition, agencies must appoint telework managing officers, who are required to be senior officials with the authority to push the use of telework agencywide, according to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM). The purpose of establishing these roles is to elevate telework from a human resources-level benefit to a strategic management tool, OPM says.

"Together with federal agencies, we have made great progress on telework implementation in the past six months. Agencies should be commended for their hard work, which will lead to better service to the taxpayers at lower cost," said OPM Director John Berry in a statement released this week. "We are learning how to best use telework for our many different types of missions and work environments and spreading those lessons from agency to agency."

One significant roadblock to greater teleworking participation is related to IT, in that federal agencies are required to update their tech-purchasing policies. Agency CIOs and chief acquisition officers have until July 28 to "develop or update policies on purchasing computing technologies and services to enable and promote continued adoption of telework," according to a memorandum from Jacob Lew, the director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget. Purchasing policies must address the information security threats raised by use of technologies associated with telework, Lew stated.

Yet as of May, just 30% of telework managing officers said their agencies have updated IT purchasing policies with respect to telework, according to a new survey by the Telework Exchange.

Climbing numbers

The Telework Exchange's survey confirms telework participation by federal employees is on the rise. Respondents to the survey, which was conducted in May, included 37 agency telework leaders and 354 federal employees.

Among respondents, 86% of telework leaders said participation has climbed over the past six months. Despite the uptick, just 32% of federal employees telework today (including those who telework regularly and those who do so occasionally).

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By its own count, the federal government reports even lower participation. In its most recent annual report to Congress, delivered in February, OPM said that 113,946 federal employees -- 5.72% of the entire federal workforce -- teleworked in 2009, an increase of 11,046 employees as compared to 2008.

Despite low adoption numbers, the majority of agencies were expected to meet the initial requirements of the Telework Enhancement Act. According to the Telework Exchange survey, 86% of federal agencies have established a telework policy, 84% have determined employee eligibility to participate, and 76% have notified employees of eligibility.

"I am pleased we are seeing progress," said Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), a longtime advocate of telework, in a statement regarding the Telework Exchange data. "While there is still room for improvement, it is good to see that telework is catching on. There are no downsides to teleworking. Everyone benefits."

The Telework Enhancement Act also calls for agencies to:

* Require a written telework agreement between eligible employees and managers.

* Establish an interactive training program for eligible employees and managers of teleworkers.

* Incorporate telework into continuity of operations plans.

* Provide telework progress and associated data to the Office of Personnel Management on an annual basis.

According to the Telework Exchange survey, 84% of agencies have established and filled a telework managing officer position; 78% have established a training program; 86% have incorporated telework into continuity of operations plans; and 78% have established a system to track and collect telework data.

So why do participation numbers remain low? Difficulties in tracking program metrics and garnering management support are among the key roadblocks cited by respondents to the Telework Exchange survey. The top telework challenges are: capturing and managing data to track program success (cited by 49%); management support (46%); and technology support (38%).

On the metrics front, less than half of agencies (46%) said they have established specific telework program goals or put formal assessment processes in place. Specifically, 43% have a formal program for measuring the impact of telework on emergency readiness; 38% are set up to measure the impact on information security; and 32% have taken steps to measure the impact on job satisfaction.

When asked their opinions, telework officers say they think that telework is having a significant impact on job satisfaction (cited by 67%) and emergency readiness (57%), but in the absence of reliable metrics, they're unsure of the impact telework is having on other areas, such as productivity, energy use, employee performance, and recruitment and retention.

On the security front, some of the steps companies have taken so far to secure telework data include: providing information security training to all teleworkers (86%); establishing a policy to ensure IT devices used for telework comply with federal security and privacy requirements (76%); developing a written telework information security policy (54%); and developing a policy for proper disposal of devices no longer used (59%).

In the bigger picture, Telework Exchange data shows that 72% of federal employees should be eligible to telework based on their job requirements. Telework leaders have set a future goal of 62% telework participation.

"We see that the majority of agencies fundamentally understand 'why telework,'" said Cindy Auten, general manager of Telework Exchange. "As agencies' programs continue to grow, we encourage leaders to leverage telework as a tool to meet agency requirements, including reducing real estate investments, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, maintaining a productive workforce, and/or recruiting a new generation of valued workers."

Follow Ann Bednarz on Twitter: twitter.com/annbednarz

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