There have been many management and human resources trends across the public sector in recent years, but few have had the impact that telework has had on the Federal workforce.

Teleworking, which gives Federal Government employees the flexibility to work outside of the office– typically at home–and where they can be most productive, has documented benefits to their agencies as well as the individual teleworker.  While telework has been an option for many in the Federal ranks since the 1980s, it is only since enactment of the Telework Enhancement Act nearly three years ago that this alternative work strategy has begun to see broader adoption.

We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Cindy Auten, General Manager of Mobile Work Exchange, a public-private partnership focused on demonstrating the value of mobility and telework, to discuss the expansion of telework adoption across Federal agencies and the principle drivers for this trend.

TMN: How has telework adoption increased in the Federal Government today?

Cindy Auten:
You have to look at the history or evolution of telework. Prior to 2010, the option for working outside of the office was viewed as a “nice to have” alternative for a narrowly-defined group of Federal employees.  It was not considered critical to the organization; instead, was labeled more as a perk for trusted knowledge workers who did not need to report to the office daily to perform many of their routine duties.

During the last decade, there have been a series of events that have renewed the interest in broader telework implementation and have helped push telework as a justified and sustainable business model for many public sector organizations.

As an example, the direct benefits that telework delivers to improve continuity of operations (COOP) are significant. In the winter of 2010 in the Metropolitan Washington, DC area, a days-long snow storm, coined by the media as “Snowmaggedon,” forced the closure of many Federal Government offices for a week. Subsequently, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management evaluated the impact of the closures and determined that those who were able to continue working via telework during the storm and its aftermath saved their agencies approximately $30 million a day that otherwise would have been lost productivity.  This event motivated the Obama Administration to review its telework strategy, and ultimately, to the passage into law of the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010—just ten months after Snowmageddon.

It is only reasonable that when an employer is able to distribute its workforce, the organization overall is more sustainable.  By enabling the eligible workforce to perform tasks away from the headquarters, government and commercial organizations are taking a pro-active step towards protecting the continuity of their business—regardless of the mission.  Natural and manmade disasters can impact any segment of a business, yet regional conditions need not cease the entire operation.  This is a lesson re-learned frequently in recent years, from the disaster recovery experiences from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to more regional events since then.  Collectively, Federal agencies have stepped up their disaster recovery (DR) programs, and have integrated telework as a key component to these plans.

In addition, from a recruiting and retention viewpoint, the U.S. Federal Government wants to be seen as an employer of choice.  By offering more flexible work alternatives that deliver improved work/life balance, broader implementation of telework helps Uncle Sam offset some of the less agreeable realities of Federal service, including pay freezes, furloughs, and periodic agency shutdowns.  At Mobile Work Exchange, we have seen many studies that show work/life balance is a key factor for multiple generations of workers. Telework gives the Federal Government a recruiting advantage over many private sector employers when competing for candidates, from those new to the workforce to seasoned veterans.
Telework also can help agencies meet their environmental goals and support enterprise-wide initiatives to reduce their organizational carbon footprints, reduce transportation subsidy costs, and cut emissions by cutting commuting days required by staff.

1662-500x500_Cindy_Auten_2TMN: How would you compare the telework growth rate in government to that in the private sector?

Cindy Auten: First and foremost, the Federal Government requires a more formal program to manage telework participation, as well as a requirement to report annual results to Congress.  Given that, it’s hard to compare sectors.  As an example, Federal agencies require teleworkers and their managers to sign official telework agreements that outline the scope of remote work, and any restrictions or processes as they apply.  This kind of rigor is far less common in private businesses where many may work from home or elsewhere away from their office; however, this is generally referred to as informal, episodic, or “ad hoc” teleworking.

In addition, the private sector has been more “willy-nilly” with its telework initiatives. Without an organized program or some formal structure, private-sector organizations sometimes struggle with implementing effective telework.  In fact, companies could learn from the Federal Government how agencies are individually and collectively working to ensure employees are not abusing remote work options.  Further, a number of Federal organizations have tools in place to measure performance and to ensure that their telework programs align well with evolving missions.

Overall, Mobile Work Exchange is seeing more public sector telework participation, but it is difficult to compare to private sector employer participation, as the numbers are not collected or reported in the same way.  According to the National Capital Region 2013 State of the Commute Report, Federal agency telework participation has more than doubled since 2007, while private sector engagement has grown by only 25 percent during the same period.

TMN: What initiatives and mandates are driving telework adoption in the Federal Government? Are there particular agencies that are leading the way in embracing these mandates and implementing effective telework programs?

Cindy Auten: The Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 provides direction for agencies to have an organizational plan in place and to move forward with telework implementation. The Federal Digital Government Strategy is the next most important policy as it requires agencies to consider and adopt more mobile solutions for the government-wide workforce.

Launched in May 2012, as the Digital Government Strategy was issued by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget to accomplish two major objectives:

  • Make the Federal Government more “digital-friendly” in constituent outreach and communications; and
  • Motivate  agencies to leverage information technology to enable a more mobile Federal workforce

To give you an idea of scale, of the entire Federal executive branch workforce of 2.7 million (as of OPM 2011 reporting), nearly half are eligible for some telework. Most of the time, most Federal employees participate in telework from home or elsewhere on certain days and work in their office for the balance of the work week.

Another policy directive worth noting is Executive Order 13514, Federal Leadership in Environmental, Energy and Economic Performance, which involves telework in a way. This order “requires agencies to measure, manage, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions toward agency-defined targets.” To meet the goals stated, agencies are given energy, water, and waste reduction targets, including fleet vehicles and other methods to cut CO2 emissions. This is an area where telework, with its consequential reduction in commuting days, delivers environmental benefits.

Today, you can find telework in every agency. Among the leaders are the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), which has approximately 65 percent of its 11,500 employees teleworking, or 86 percent of those eligible. The USPTO is using telework and hoteling (office space sharing) to avoid spending millions on real estate.

In addition, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) has been a strong partner and support of telework as well, particularly with a focused effort to save on real estate expense across the Federal Government.  During 2013, GSA re-opened its renovated headquarters in Washington, DC based on a robust teleworking and hoteling model that involves nearly all of its regional workforce.

In part two of our conversation, we’ll discuss the benefits of telework, the technologies driving adoption, and best practices from successful telework initiatives.