Telework: Is the End in Sight?

The author discusses the Telework Enhancement Act and says that he believes it has made significant progress towards enhancing telework in government across three key areas.

The recent front-page developments featuring the apparent end of telework at Yahoo and Best Buy must have sent shudders through the telework community, including the Federal sector.  Were those much-debated, headline-making decisions precursors, anomalies or something else?

I don’t think those decisions will have much, if any, effect on the Federal Government’s telework program.  Why not?  For one thing, we have a law in place – the Telecommunications Enhancement Act (TEA) of 2010 (Public Law 111-292), and the agency regulations which flowed from the TEA.

I think that we have also had excellent leadership from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and the General Services Administration (GSA), the latter being one of my former employers.  I haven’t written many positive things about OPM’s leadership in Federal Human Resources management in recent years, but this is an exception.

Along those lines, Brittany Ballenstedt, who authors the “Wired Workplace” column for, interviewed Cindy Auten, general manager for Mobile Work Exchange for a March 15 article.  Ms. Auten is quoted in the article as saying that telework “is one area where I think the private sector could really learn from the federal government’s example.”  She went on to observe that “The best thing is the federal government actually defines telework – they put metrics around it, look at everyone’s eligibility and put in management training.  Sometimes the private sector doesn’t even define it.”

The TEA requires that telework be part of all agency emergency planning. It must be incorporated into agencies’ Continuity of Operations (COOP) plans.  The Act calls for management commitment to implement remote work arrangements as broadly as possible to take full advantage of the potential of telework for this purpose and to ensure that –

  • Equipment, technology, and technical support have been tested
  • Employees are comfortable with technology and communications methods
  • Managers are comfortable managing a distributed workgroup

OPM Director John Berry summarized the benefits of the TEA in a December 13, 2010, Memorandum for Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies, which is quoted just below.

“To maximize the impact of this new law, OPM will be coordinating agency efforts to build effective telework programs with three key objectives in mind:

  1. Improve Continuity of Operations (COOP) – using telework as a strategy to keep government operational during inclement weather or other emergencies
  2. Promote Management Effectiveness – using telework to target reductions in management costs related to employee turnover and absenteeism, and to reduce real estate costs and environmental impact and transit costs
  3. Enhance Work-life Balance– using telework to allow employees to better manage their work and family obligations, retaining a more resilient Federal workforce able to better meet agency goals”

Two and a third years later, I believe the telework program has made significant progress toward meeting the three objectives articulated by Mr. Berry.

Improve Continuity of Operations

As I see it, the expansion of telework has had a major positive impact on the Federal Government’s objective of improving the continuity of operations.  I’m sure many readers, particularly those who work in the Washington, D.C. area or in Baltimore, remember when Federal agencies were closed for an unprecedented four straight days in February 2010 by a massive snowstorm referred to by such terms of endearment such as “Snowzilla,” “Snowmageddon,” and “Snowpocalypse.”  I believe that storm, the shutdown it caused, and the fact that a significant number of employees in the area were able to telework even as the accumulating snow kept forcing closures, provided the final push necessary to get Congress to enact the TEA.  As for how much the Federal shutdown cost taxpayers, I have seen a revised estimate which placed that loss at upwards of $74 million.

Hurricane Sandy, which earned the sobriquet “Superstorm Sandy,” was the deadliest and most destructive storm of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season and the second-costliest hurricane in United States history according to Wikipedia.  The website noted that a total of “24 states were in some way affected by Sandy,” which caused the most devastation in New York and New Jersey.

The increase in the number and ferocity of weather events in recent years would, by itself, justify the expansion of telework programs in Federal agencies.  (It’s a good thing that global climate change has not been proven or I’d really be worried.)  If I were in charge of a Federal agency, which I realize is a frightening concept, I would ask every employee to sign up for telework – the TEA says, reasonably, that no employee can be forced to participate – and be issued an agency laptop computer or authorization to access their agency computer system from their personal computer.

Agencies seem to be moving, albeit at an uneven pace, in that direction.  For example, OPM Director Berry sent the following message in preparation for the 2012-2013 winter season:  “…OPM is updating the Washington, DC, Area Dismissal and Closure Procedures.  “For better communication of Governmentwide operations, we are also changing our announcement ‘Federal Offices are Closed to the Public’ to ‘Federal Offices are Closed – Emergency and Telework-Ready Employees Must Follow Their Agency’s Policies.’”

The more employees who are authorized to telework, at least on a situational basis, the better prepared the Federal Government will be to accomplish work even when agencies are shut down by a major weather event, a power outage, or other type of emergency – additional terrorist attacks cannot be ruled out – in places with significant numbers of Federal employees.

Promote Management Effectiveness 

Surveys have repeatedly found that the majority of employees are interested in participating in telework on a regular or occasional basis, and that employee turnover and absenteeism are reduced when they are allowed to do so.  Some agencies, led by OPM, have been able to turn space and even whole buildings back to GSA.

And agencies have in some cases been able to avoid incurring permanent change of station expenses by such actions as putting into vacancy announcements language indicating that the person selected may be able to telework from her/his current duty station or location.  Telework can also be an effective means of retaining the services of an employee who has relocated out of the commuting area (e.g., to accompany a spouse who has been transferred) and would otherwise have to resign.

Telework has clearly had a major positive impact on the environment in terms of the number of cars it has taken off the roads.  As for transit costs, the price of gas has risen significantly in recent weeks, and many employees are likely to welcome some financial relief from those costs.

Enhance Work-life Balance

I can’t count, even by taking off both shoes, the number of Federal employees I have spoken with who ruefully referred to the “work-life” balance in their agency as consisting of “all work, no life.”

Telework has allowed many employees to better manage their work and family obligations.  For one thing, any day that an employee does not have to commute to and from work is likely to leave the employee less tired, less stressed and more resilient.  This is particularly true in major urban areas with congested roads and highways.  Each of the 10 Federal regions has cities which fall into this category, starting with Washington, D.C., where many agency headquarters are located.  The cost of housing in that area, and in places like New York City, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego and Seattle is so high that many employees have been forced by economics to live far away from their offices.

It is by no means unusual for employees who work in Washington, D.C., to have a two-hour commute each way.  Throw in a nine-hour workday, including lunch, and the employee is away from home for 13 hours or more a day – and often exhausted by the time that day is over.  Having commuted 130 miles a day for more than 4 ½ years in the pre-telework era, and having left home and returned in pitch darkness throughout the winter, I can vouch for the accumulative wearing down effect of such a commute.

As for telework making the Federal workforce better able to meet agency goals, in many jobs, such as those which require some degree of research, analysis and document development, the incumbent would clearly benefit from “quiet time,” which is often easier to come by at home than in the office.

I also see telework as playing an increasingly significant role in reasonable accommodation under the expanded purview of the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 .

My impression is that there are still many skeptics in the management ranks with regard to the effectiveness and efficiency of telework.  And even supervisors who have no problem with the concept will always have to balance employee requests to telework with the needs of the mission, which often include insuring adequate office coverage.

Telework is a privilege, not a right, and it can be taken away as quickly as it is given.  Those of us who are fortunate enough to telework would be well advised to consistently demonstrate that we are accomplishing as much or more while teleworking as we do in the office.  It is also essential that management set clear expectations of teleworkers and make sure those expectations are being met.

As I have written in previous telework articles, I think every telework situation should begin with and maintain a “seamless transition,” meaning that no one – including supervisors, co-workers, clients or other contacts – would be inconvenienced by the fact that an employee is teleworking or should even notice any difference.

I predict that the telework program will continue to grow in the Federal sector and that it will be used as a recruitment and retention tool by those agencies which are more able or willing to provide that opportunity than other agencies.  And while the private sector may follow the lead of Yahoo and Best Buy in ending telework, I suspect that won’t be the case.  Instead, I believe that companies which eliminate or reduce the opportunity to telework will lose employees to those who don’t.  It’s still hard to put a genie back in the bottle.

About the Author

Steve Oppermann completed his Federal career on March 31, 1997, after more than 26 years of service, virtually all in human resources management. He served as Regional Director of Personnel for GSA and advised and represented management in six agencies during his federal career. Steve passed away after a battle with cancer on December 22, 2013.