• United States

The telework police

Sep 22, 20033 mins

The Office of Personnel Management copes with being the government’s telework enforcer.

Since Public Law No. 106-346 was enacted in October 2000, telework watchers have wondered whether passing a law mandating telework made sense or whether such a law is enforceable. Ultimately, the telework problem falls on the shoulders of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).

The Congressional Federal Telework Mandate of 2001, which is part of the Department of Transportation Appropriations Act of 2001, states, “Each executive agency shall establish a policy under which eligible employees ‘may participate in telecommuting to the maximum extent possible without diminished employee performance. ‘” It charges OPM with providing “that the requirements of this section are applied to 25% of the Federal workforce and to an additional 25% of such workforce each year thereafter.”

That means by April 2004, OPM needs to get 100% of eligible employees teleworking. Or…what we don’t know.  But first things first. Since the law isn’t clearly defined, it defies enforcement. And the first step to clarifying the law is defining “eligible employee.”

Until recently, OPM has left eligibility requirements up to individual agencies, arguing a one-size-fits-all approach can’t work. This stance caused problems last year when OPM submitted to Congress its annual report, which details agencies’ progress. Because OPM failed to define eligibility, the agencies filled out OPM’s survey inconsistently, tainting the data. This year, OPM has learned from its mistakes and created a uniform set of criteria for agencies to tailor to their needs.

OPM has broken down eligibility into two categories, “core” and “situational.” Core teleworkers work away regularly and predictably; their managers make allowances in the office for their absence. Situational teleworkers work away on an ad-hoc basis, to work on a project without distractions or because some external force makes commuting prohibitive (bad weather, security issue, demonstration, etc.).

For this year’s survey, “We’re trying to come up with separate numbers for the two categories because their purpose is different and the business case for each is different,” says Abby Block, OPM’s deputy associate director for employee and family support policy.

OPM has also detailed the two factors that determine eligibility: The nature of the job (Can this work be performed off site?) and the qualification of the employee. The latter takes into account performance-level rating, length of time on the job and whether the employee needs training to work remotely.

Whether solid survey results, expected at the end of January, will lead to putting more pressure on low-performing agencies remains to be seen. But for now, OPM is taking a good cop approach to increase compliance. It’s launching interactive online educational modules for managers and employees as part of its GoLearn program, and monitoring progress by holding quarterly meetings with agency telework coordinators. It’s also planning focus groups with employees in the lowest-performing agencies to better understand the barriers.