Fuel crunch spurs government telework push

* Officials encourage agencies to promote teleworking, carpooling and public transportation to reduce fuel consumption

The national average gas price topped the $3-a-gallon mark last week, just as federal officials took steps to help spur more telecommuting by government workers. The impetus behind both events was Hurricane Katrina, which in addition to its devastating human toll caused serious fuel supply disruptions and escalated already rising gas prices nationwide.

The potential for fuel shortages led President Bush to request that consumers ease up on the gas guzzling. "Don't buy gas if you don't need it," he said in a White House briefing following the hurricane. Meanwhile, the price for a gallon of regular, unleaded gas in the U.S. rose to an average of $3.07 on Sept. 5, according to the Energy Information Administration.

If price alone wasn't enough to spur consumption cutbacks, Bush's conservation request prompted action from Linda Springer, director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM). Springer sent a Sept. 2 memo to federal agencies' human resources executives encouraging them to more aggressively promote fuel-consuming options such as teleworking, carpooling and using public transportation.

Telework, in particular, presents agencies with significant opportunities to reduce fuel consumption and traffic congestion, according to Springer. "With today's technology, many employees can perform at least some of their work functions at their homes or at alternate worksites closer to their homes, eliminating or reducing the need to commute," she wrote in the memo. "This will make a significant contribution toward dealing with the fuel shortage problem we are now facing."

To attract more takers, the General Services Administration (GSA) announced it will eliminate some fees for using its telework centers, where federal employees can go to use office gear such as computers and printers. Through the end of 2005, the GSA-sponsored Washington Metropolitan Telework Centers in Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia are offering free access to all federal employees.

Telecommuting historically has not been an easy sell inside the federal government. Despite over a decade of growth, teleworkers remain the minority among federal employees. However, there have been efforts to ramp up adoption lately, and in the aftermath of Katrina, those efforts might see greater success. High gas prices have a way of getting people to pay attention to fuel-consuming alternatives. In addition, the hurricane may help to illustrate just how important supporting a distributed and mobile workforce can be.

In the big picture, the notion of using telework to preserve business operations in the wake of a disaster is not new. Earlier this summer ITAC - the telework advisory group for HR association WorldatWork - published a report aimed at helping businesses and government agencies incorporate telework as part of their business continuity strategies. (An electronic copy of the report, “Exploring Telework as a Business Continuity Strategy: A Guide to Getting Started,” is available for free download on the ITAC Web site.)

For companies caught unprepared by the hurricane, getting business operations up and running again will be a challenge. To lend a hand, Intermedia.NET is offering to help companies whose e-mail and Web systems were disrupted by the hurricane. The hosting services provider says it will bring these businesses online again free of charge, plus provide two months of free e-mail and Web hosting.

If there's a bright side to Katrina, it's the goodwill that has emerged, in my opinion. Small and grand efforts can make a big difference as people and businesses struggle to regain some stability.

Meanwhile, for those of us outside the geographic area hit hardest by Katrina, high gas prices seem a small burden to bear compared to what people in the Gulf Coast region have endured. Nonetheless, the price hikes are significant - maybe significant enough to execute a change in some people's workplace routines.

What do you think? In the wake of Katrina, are more employees at your company looking to telework? If so, is management supportive? What are the challenges? Please send your observations to me at abednarz@nww.com

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