• United States

Getting people to the seat, Part 2

Feb 03, 20044 mins

* Ways to remove barriers to federal telework center use

Last week we began looking for ways to improve the use of federal telework centers. Of the 16 centers’ 1,199 seats, only about 780 are filled. Here are some possibilities.

Each executive agency is mandated to set aside $50,000 annually for telework center use. But many aren’t using the money. For instance, in fiscal year 2002, the Federal Emergency Management Agency spent $416; the Department of Housing and Urban Development spent $5,544; and the Environmental Protection Agency spent $6,262. A few spent more, such as the Department of Agriculture ($96,252); Department of Defense ($256,308); and the Department of Education ($87,328). But four agencies spent nothing. The numbers come from the Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM) report, “The Status of Telework in the Federal Government.”

Why isn’t the money being spent? Some agencies still don’t promote telework; some promote only at-home telework and aren’t interested in using the centers. In agencies with such enormous budgets, $50,000 isn’t considered much to use – or lose. Sometimes there’s confusion over the policy, with some agency telework coordinators thinking the General Services Administration (GSA) will give them the money rather than it coming out of their budgets. There’s also a misconception floating around that putting employees in centers is costly while sending them home is “free.”  

Moreover, there’s no accountability, no one looking over an agency’s shoulder to see if it spent the money properly.

“When this law was passed, we were really pleased because we thought the agencies would spend it. But they didn’t,” a GSA source says. “Then when OPM issued the report listing how much agencies were spending, we thought it would humiliate those not spending it. We also thought Congress would see the report and ask agencies why they weren’t spending it. But neither of these things have happened.” 

Maybe there’s a better way to allocate the money? In the past, some considered whether the GSA should take the $50,000 off the top of agencies’ budgets and have them work it off; or the GSA should bill agencies directly. It might help if Congress tweaked the law to give the GSA direct control over the money.

Darryl Dobberfuhl, director of the GMU Telework Centers in Fairfax and Sterling, Va., thinks the federal government should provide the telework center equivalent of Metrochecks. The agency could use the $50,000 to buy a block of seats ahead of time and issue an appropriate number of telework center checks to potential users. “We have the software to manage the seat reservations,” Dobberfuhl says. 

Another idea that’s bobbed around – and could resurface – is that of moving the administration of telework centers out of the GSA’s Public Buildings Service (PBS) and into its Office of Government-wide Policy (OGP). It’s an obvious choice: OGP promotes the use of telework across the government. In partnership with OPM, it provides various resources and guidance, and manages the government’s telework Web site, OGP is sponsoring a free 60-day test use of telework centers for first time users from Feb. 1 to March 31.

Mary Bray, director of the Hagerstown Telework Center, likes the idea: “There’s no promotional support from PBS. Since OGP promotes telework as one of its missions, it would be a better home for the centers.”

Last, the value of telework centers needs to be better promoted, especially to managers reluctant to allow telework. In some cases today, telework centers are being used as a kind of a “halfway house” by managers who refuse to let employees work from home.

“We don’t care how people are teleworking – center or not,” a GSA source says. “But the centers are a very valuable resource to move people toward telework, period, and provide a service to those who can’t work at home.”

Note: For details on signing up for the 60-day trial period, go to the telework centers section of . For contact information and telework center locations, go to