Teleworking not an experiment at National Science Foundation

Half the employees at the NSF telework at least occasionally

While many federal government agencies have struggled to boost telework participation into the double-digits, the National Science Foundation has just over half its staff teleworking.

While many federal government agencies have struggled to boost telework participation into the double-digits, the National Science Foundation today sees just over half (51%) its staff teleworking. That’s a far cry from five years ago, when NSF’s telework program didn’t even exist.

Sue Whitney joined the agency in the summer of 2003 as labor relations officer, a role that included trying to end a stalemate on telework. “Management hadn’t wanted to negotiate a telework agreement, and the union was pushing for it. One of my first assignments was to get something agreed to on telework,” says Whitney, who is also telework coordinator at the agency that fosters science and engineering research.

She soon learned there were three main issues that concerned management: How managers would know if teleworkers were really working; how managers would evaluate the work of off-site employees; and, most importantly, whether a telework program would open the door to a flood of grievances from union members on telework issues.

Federal telework programs are no strangers to grievances, which are formal union complaints that can be taken to an arbitrator for judgment. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), for example, in December was ordered by a federal arbitration panel to allow its legal instrument examiners to telework on a pilot basis -- the culmination of a battle over whether those employees should be allowed to telework given the sensitivity of the material they handle.

That’s just the sort of maelstrom NSF wanted to avoid. But not building a telework program wasn’t an option. U.S. Public Law 106-346, which went into effect in 2000, called for agencies to increase telework participation by 25% of the federal workforce annually, until 100% of eligible employees were participating.

NSF had some catching up to do.

“When we sat down at the negotiating table, I told the union that management’s biggest fear was being grieved on telework, so [management] didn’t want to experiment with it. Eventually the union agreed -- and it was a big concession for them -- to give us two years where people wouldn’t be allowed to grieve issues over the telework program. That let management agree to go for it.”

Both sides were in favor of a flexible program, which has been key to its success, Whitney says. “We opened the program up to everybody. We didn’t put restrictions, such as not allowing managers or supervisors to telework. We said anybody whose job is appropriate, and whose supervisor says it’s ok, can telework.”

Despite pressure to grow the program quickly, NSF has let it grow at its own pace. “We didn’t force telework down anyone’s throat,” Whitney says. “We left it open to be tried, and hoped more and more people would join the bandwagon, which is exactly what has happened.”

Managers talked to their peers in other divisions, learned telework wasn’t causing productivity to fall off, and saw that employees were happy with the program. “It spread by word of mouth through managers,” she says. “We let individual successes be the selling point of the program.”

Measured success

Fast-forward to today, and NSF’s telework program is well established and continuing to grow. The agency recently teamed with Telework Exchange, a public-private partnership focused on telework, to survey NSF employees on how they think the program is working.

The survey polled 1,200 NSF employees (87% of the agency’s workforce) and found 51% participated in the telework program. Among the teleworkers, 32% have a core telework agreement in place and telework at least one day per week. The other 68% have situational agreements in place and telework occasionally, at least one day per month.

For NSF employees, the biggest telework benefits are decreased commuting time (cited by 84% of respondents), less frequent interruptions (77%), increased productivity (67%) and better work/life balance (63%).

The survey also revealed monetary and environmental gains. The average NSF teleworker each year avoids 62 hours in commuting time, saves $1,201 in commuting costs and spares 1,751 pounds of emissions from being dispersed into the environment, the Telework Exchange calculates.

For management, the survey helped confirm that some initial concerns about telework were unfounded. For example, 87% of employees who manage teleworkers said in the survey that productivity increases or stays the same once employees start teleworking.

“We can’t micromanage and see what somebody is doing every minute that they’re at home teleworking, but if their productivity stays the same or increases, then we, as management, have nothing to complain about,” Whitney says.

Similarly, 68% of managers said they don’t find it difficult to evaluate teleworkers, and 66% said telework requires minimal or no change to how work is done. “That issue really didn’t materialize, although it was a big concern,” Whitney says.Management’s biggest concern -- about grievances -- so far is a non-issue as well. While the two-year period of no grievances has expired, the union has let the policy continue and hasn’t instituted grievances, Whitney says. She meets weekly with the union, and telework issues are dealt with as they arise. “We work it out at that level, rather than letting it go to a formal grievance.”

So far, there have been very few complaints. “People really like to be teleworkers,” Whitney says. “It makes their life easier, makes the commute simpler and saves money. People work hard at being a good employee when they’re teleworking.”

For the agency, the expanded telework program has helped shore up its continuity of operations plans. “If there’s an emergency, we feel that we’re well placed to continue operations because we have quite a few people now who are capable of teleworking and have done it,” Whitney says. “More than half of the workforce is ready to telework if they need to.”

Her advice for other organizations that want to grow their telework programs is to be flexible, avoid mandating participation and make sure to have buy-in from key parties. For NSF, having the support of the union, as well as support from top management, has been invaluable, Whitney says.

“I would encourage my sister agencies, and any private sector companies, to give telework a try. It really does help people balance their work/life,” Whitney says. “You just have to be a little open minded, creative and flexible.”

Long road ahead

As NSF digests the results of its new telework survey, Congress is actively working to craft more legislation to expand teleworking in the federal government.

One example is the Telework Improvements Act of 2007, which was introduced last November and would require agencies to allow eligible employees to telework at least 20% of the time during a two-week period; that bill was approved by the House Homeland Oversight and Government Reform Committee on March 13 and is headed for the House floor. A similar proposal is working its way through the Senate.

But as legislative activity steps up, new data shows overall federal telework numbers dropping.

In December the Office of Personnel Management released its latest report on the status of telework in the federal government. While 49 of 80 reporting agencies said their numbers of teleworkers increased, the total number of teleworkers in the federal government decreased from 119,248 in 2005 to 110,592 in 2006. Several large agencies reported having fewer teleworkers, due to problems tracking teleworkers and security concerns, the report states.

Whitney acknowledges that security can be a huge issue for many agencies trying to grow their teleworker ranks. The nature of the work that NSF does keeps its security requirements manageable.

“We have sensitive information, because we deal with grants, but we don’t have a lot of top-secret classified information,” Whitney says. “In many ways we’re fortunate; with our employees and the type of work that we do, we don’t have some of the issues that other agencies do.”

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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