Advocates defend telecommuting against backlash

As laptop thefts and data breaches mount, telework advocates defend work-at-home initiatives.

When a Department of Veterans Affairs analyst lost a laptop to burglars, some pointed the finger at telework.

"It's a perfect example of how telework gets a) instantly blamed and b) held to a higher standard than anything else. The problem was a stupid employee, it had nothing to do with telework," says consultant Gil Gordon of Monmouth Junction, N.J.

The analyst whose laptop was stolen from his house was not a teleworker, just someone who took work home with him. To link the incident to telecommuting is a mischaracterization, says Steve O'Keeffe, executive director of Telework Exchange. "I don't understand why it has been painted this way," O'Keeffe says. "The chap is not a teleworker. He brought work - sensitive but unclassified information - out of the office. But anyone could do that."

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Gordon agrees. Because the burglary occurred at home, people have assumed the analyst was a telecommuter, and by association, assumed that teleworking puts sensitive data at greater risk of theft or loss.

"If that computer had been stolen out of his car when he stopped on the way home from the office at the dry cleaners, hypothetically, no one would have mentioned the word telework. But because it was taken from his home, then all of a sudden it is inferred that it's a work-at-home problem, and that's just nonsense. The only people who want to make that argument are people who have it in for telework and don't believe it will ever work," Gordon says.

Despite years of growing acceptance, telework still has such detractors. "The No. 1 challenge is cultural inertia. It's motivating the middle managers, teaching them a new way of doing work," O'Keeffe says. "It's the Luddite mentality that we need to change."

The Luddite mentality isn't hard to find in federal agencies, in particular. Law requires agencies to make telework arrangements available to government employees whose jobs can be done from home, but many are woefully behind in implementing telework programs. Telework remains the exception in most federal agencies, and overall the government lags well behind private industry in terms of adoption.

To speed things up, lawmakers such as Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) have proposed financial penalties for agencies that resist teleworking. Two years running, Wolf has inserted language in spending bills requiring agencies such as NASA and the Commerce, Justice and State departments show an increase in the number of federal workers telecommuting or forfeit $5 million each.

Telework expansion

The number of telecommuter households will exceed 10 million by 2010, according to IDC.
Businesses with telecommuters by company size:
Small businesses (One to 99 employees)
Have telecommuters: 34.8%
Mean number of telecommuters: 3.2
Midsize businesses (100 to 999 employees)
Have telecommuters: 68.3%
Mean number of telecommuters: 23
Large businesses (1,000 or more employees)
Have telecommuters: 78.8%
Mean number of telecommuters: 130.5

President Bush and top administrators also have championed telework as a vital part of business-continuity plans, particularly as agencies prepare for a potential flu pandemic. Also driving telework interest and promotion are increasing gas prices, traffic congestion and housing costs.

Yet years of telework advocacy can’t obviate the latest crop of data breaches. In addition to the Veterans Affairs incident — which compromised personal information for 26.5 million people — several other recently disclosed data breaches have raised concerns about how employees access data when they’re away from the office.

Thieves stole a laptop from an Ernst & Young employee that had information about more than 240,000 users. The YMCA in Providence, R.I., also lost a laptop to thieves with personal information related to 65,000 members. Other organizations that lost data along with laptops recently include Humana and the Internal Revenue Service.

Data losses shouldn't slow telework progress, but there is a lesson to be learned, telework advocates say. “There’s significant ambiguity in the policies associated with handling and managing sensitive but unclassified data,” O’Keeffe says. Not just for teleworkers but for all office workers, he points out.

The recent thefts are a wake-up call that companies need to do more to protect their data, agrees Chuck Wilsker, president and CEO of the Telework Coalition. “I would love to have been a fly on the wall and seen a whole bunch of people in the last couple of weeks scurrying back to the office with their disks and proprietary information that they shouldn’t have taken out,” Wilsker says.

The benefits of telework to employers and employees remain as strong as ever, but so is the need for security. “If you’re careless, there are going to be consequences,” Wilsker says.

In recent studies the Telework Coalition has found that most organizations with telework programs don’t have formal policies in place, Wilsker says. Creating a formal, written telecommuting policy that covers employee eligibility, and addresses how enterprise data and customer information will be stored and handled, for example, can improve operations. “There’s a need for formality,” he says.

Employees will continue to require greater flexibility and agility, and companies need to deal wisely with the trend, O’Keeffe says.

“Increased mobility is very clearly the way of future. To try and check that would be quixotic. What we have to do is make sure we’re training people, educating people and changing our culture to be more secure,” O’Keeffe says.

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.