U.S. government wants workers to stay home

Federal legislation requires government agencies to maximize number of teleworkers
By Bob Fortier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 07/19/2011

Last December, United States President Barack Obama signed the Telework Enhancement Act, requiring all U.S. federal agencies to maximize the number of federal employee teleworkers.

This law positions the U.S. government as an international leader in telework and demonstrates the importance, even necessity, of telework in workplaces.

The legislation is aimed at helping the U.S. administration improve operational efficiency, flexibility, job satisfaction as well as recruitment and retention.

“Telework increases the talent pool,” says Cindy Auten, a general manager at Telework Exchange, a public-private partnership focused on promoting all aspects of telework. “Employers are starting to see that telework can be used to recruit people from all over the country — in fact, from all over the world.”

The act also aims to achieve massive cost reductions, through reduced real estate and absenteeism and increased productivity. The government saved US$30 million per day in 2009 through teleworking during severe snowstorms in Washington, D.C., according to John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).

Another driver is the reduction of gridlock and pollution. If all eligible federal employees teleworked two days per week for one year, they would avoid driving 8.8 billion kilometres and save US$3.8 billion in commuting costs, according to Telework Exchange and Cisco, hosts of Telework Week in February 2011.

Key provisions of legislation

By June 2012, the Telework Enhancement Act requires all federal agencies to update technology purchasing requirements to enable, facilitate and promote telework.

As of June 7, 2011, all agencies were required to:

•establish telework policies

•ensure eligibility guidelines were fair and clear, and determine and notify employees of their eligibility to telework

•treat teleworkers and non-teleworkers equally for the purpose of performance evaluation and ensure performance is based on results or outcomes

•provide telework training to teleworkers and tele-managers

•provide telework agreements that clearly state details such as hours, goals and communication methods — signed by employees to indicate they understand the standards and expectations

•designate a telework managing officer who has direct access to the agency head

•incorporate telework into continuity-of-operations plans

•establish a system to collect, track and report telework data and progress to the OPM.

Central agencies

The act requires the OPM to provide oversight and, together with Telework Exchange, provide agencies with support and assistance to help them understand their roles and meet their obligations. For example, the OPM published a telework guide that outlines practical information to assist agencies, managers, supervisors, telework co-ordinators and employees.

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) also plays a role in directing agencies to purchase computer systems that enable or support telework.

Training

Telework Exchange recommends agencies train teleworkers and their managers to function as team members, rather than individually, and to focus on both the cultural and technical aspects of telework. Making managers and employees comfortable with the collaboration tools is imperative to avoid isolating employees. It also helps managers communicate more effectively with teleworkers.

“Once managers see how telework can enhance productivity, improve emergency operations and help federal agencies achieve their missions, they will be more likely to adopt these change management practices,” says Auten.

Managing performance

Managers should also adopt a new mindset for measuring teleworker performance, she says.

“Telework causes a shift in how managers operate and ensures that they focus on work output, not physical presence.”

In other words, organizations should embrace management by results.

To that end, all employees should have regular, face-to-face performance evaluations to thoroughly review goals, expectations, productivity, the timeliness of assignment completion, ease of communication and system issues.

Performance and productivity metrics should not differ whether an employee is a teleworker or an office worker. Generally, performance and productivity metrics should be real-time and link individual worker activities to agency ­objectives.

IT and security

In terms of technology and security, agencies should understand technology is a key component to telework and make security-enabled telework technology readily available. They should also appreciate typical requirements of teleworkers, such as a computer, peripheral equipment (such as a printer), phone, Internet connectivity and secure network access.

In determining the most cost-effective, efficient solutions for their specific needs, agencies should consider tools such as video conferencing, web-based collaboration solutions, voice-over-Internet protocol (VoIP) and mobile personal digital assistants. Finally, they should educate and train managers and employees on their security responsibilities.

Progress to date

Following the June 7 deadline, Telework Exchange released a progress report titled Federal Telework Progress Report: Making the Grade? It shows agencies have made strong progress in meeting key provisions of the legislation. However, there are several challenges faced by those in charge of implementation — including capturing data and managing program metrics, and management and technology support.

Specific highlights from the report include:

• 86 per cent of federal agencies have established a telework policy

• 84 per cent of agencies have determined employee eligibility to participate

• 76 per cent of agencies have notified employees of eligibility

• 86 per cent of agencies have incorporated telework into continuity-of-operations plans

• 84 per cent of agencies have established and filled a telework managing officer position

• 78 per cent of agencies have established a system to track and collect telework data

• 78 per cent of agencies have established a training program

• 72 per cent of employees are eligible to telework

• 32 per cent of federal employees telework, compared to 5.7 per cent in 2009 — the eventual goal is to have participation of 62 per cent.

“While there is still room for improvement, it is good to see that telework is catching on. There are no downsides to teleworking. Everyone benefits,” said Rep. Frank Wolf, a longtime advocate of telework, in a statement.

Bob Fortier is president of InnoVisions Canada and the Canadian Telework Association in Ottawa. For more information, visit www.ivc.ca. The telework progress report from the Telework Exchange is available at www.teleworkexchange.com/progressreport.

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