Show Me the Way to Phone From Home
Congress Hopes Private-Sector Telework Methods Can Translate to Federal Workers<@VM>Telework: A Solution for Stranded Employees
- By Gail Repsher Emery
- Sep 20, 2001
Lawmakers are looking to the private sector for solutions that would spur more telecommuting among federal government employees.
Legislation passed last year directed federal agencies to identify employees whose jobs would be appropriate for telework, to offer the option to 25 percent of eligible workers by April 23, and to offer the option to another 25 percent of eligible workers in each of the next three years.
While the percentage of federal workers telecommuting has nearly doubled since 1998, from 1.4 percent to 2.6 percent, many agencies have a long way to go in meeting their telecommuting goals.
Federal employees and private-sector business leaders testifying Sept. 6 before the House subcommittee on technology and procurement policy presented myriad causes for the slow adoption of telecommuting, among them concerns about information security and tax laws.
One of the biggest barriers to telecommuting is manager reluctance to permit work outside the traditional office, said Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., chairman of the subcommittee.
"Federal managers in particular are resistant to telework because they are no longer in a position to monitor employees directly. Managers need to shift their focus from process-oriented performance measurements to results," Davis said.
Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America in Arlington, Va., said information security is a barrier to telecommuting, but not an insurmountable one. Employers must adopt comprehensive security procedures and educate employees about them, he said.
"I don't think the vulnerabilities are as great as you might think," Miller told the subcommittee.
For telecommuting to take hold, managers must be trained to supervise remote workers, and they must see the benefits to their organization, advocates said. One benefit is increased worker retention.
"If you lose an individual, it costs about 150 percent of their previous salary to replace them," said Judy McFarland, director of employment, diversity and e-human resources for the Systems Group of TRW Inc. Of the Cleveland company's 13,000 U.S. employees, 10 percent to 20 percent telecommute one or two days a week, she said.
"I'm sure our employees are saving travel time and costs, and in some cases may be saving on child care expenses," she said.
TRW has been able to hire employees such as Greg Taylor precisely because it allows telecommuting. Taylor was recruited by TRW's Systems Group in Reston, Va., but he didn't want to leave his home in Morristown, N.J. That wasn't a problem for his supervisor or his assistant, both of whom work in California.
"A lot of people I talk to say, 'Boy, I wish I could do [telecommuting],' and I don't know why they can't. I think it's something they could easily go talk to their supervisors about and work out," said Taylor, director of business development for the systems group.
The private sector also realizes real estate savings through telework, testified Mark Straton, vice president of global marketing for Siemens Enterprise Networks, a subsidiary of German electronics and engineering firm Siemens AG. Since 1996, Siemens has cut its office space by 35 percent, saving $3 million, he said at the hearing.
"If you look at Siemens as a model, what drove us was cost," Straton said. "We were facing intense competitive pressure and we had to save money. The one thing you could do is simply tell [federal managers] they have to reduce real estate costs, and the rest will follow."
But currently, federal managers don't get back any of the money they save on real estate through telecommuting, said John Edwards, president of the International Telework Association and Council in Washington.
"It's a huge disincentive," Edwards said, although he noted efforts are under way in Congress to change the policy.
"Why should they really care about saving real estate costs if they don't see any benefit from it? A lot of that cost savings ? if not all of it ? should go back to the agency so they can invest the money in training or IT or whatever else they need," he said.
The federal government has already taken some strong cues from the private sector, however. Teresa Jenkins, director of the Office of Workforce Relations in the federal Office of Personnel Management, said insight from telecommunications giant AT&T Corp. of New York has been a great help.
Several OPM initiatives resemble AT&T efforts to promote telecommuting, such as a dedicated Web site. With the General Services Administration, OPM in June launched its site, www.telework.gov. AT&T's telework site is at www.att.com/telework. Like AT&T, OPM encourages managers to begin with the assumption that all positions are appropriate for telecommuting until proven otherwise, said Alice Borelli, AT&T's director of federal government affairs.
"This positive, analytical approach focuses managers' attention on the nature of the work and job characteristics for determining whether a position is suitable for telework," Jenkins said at the hearing.
Recently, teleworking has received some negative press, notably a June 25 USA Today article which featured a young mother working at home while caring for her infant ? an arrangement telecommuting advocates don't recommend.
"I think it's natural for there to be at least a small backlash against any trend or innovation. People in general are resistant to change," said Jennifer Thomas Alcott, program director for the federally supported telework centers in Fredericksburg, Stafford and Woodbridge, Va.
However, Alcott pointed out that the telephone, the automobile and the television all had their detractors but now are taken for granted.
"I think that telework will follow a similar track," she said.
The number of U.S. teleworkers increased to 23.6 million in 2000, a 20.6 percent jump from 1999, according to the Telework America research survey sponsored by AT&T Corp. and released in October 2000 by the International Telework Association and Council. Edwards said the number of telecommuters has been increasing 15 percent to 20 percent a year.
Teleworking isn't for everybody, advocates admit. Some jobs require daily contact with the public. Some employees aren't disciplined enough to work on their own; others miss the camaraderie in an office. For many others, though, telecommuting allows more time with family, resulting in happier employees, improved productivity and lower turnover.
At AT&T, for example, 35,000 managers telework at least one day
a month. The company estimates that it annually saves $100 million
in increased productivity, $18 million in reduced turnover and 110 million commuting miles. Sixty-seven percent of employees recruited by other firms say telecommuting was a factor in their decision to stay with AT&T, Borelli said.
Federal managers' reluctance to embrace telecommuting is frustrating, said Stanley Kaczmarczyk, director of the Innovative Workplace Division in the Office of Real Property at the GSA's Office of Governmentwide Policy.
"I don't know why people feel so threatened by it, but my main recommendation to middle managers would be to do what I'm doing and get out here and do it yourself," said Kaczmarczyk, who telecommutes one day a week from the federal telework center in Fairfax, Va.
"You learn very quickly that it's not really any different than supervising [employees] any other day," he said. "I communicate via telephone and e-mail and hold meetings occasionally. The only option I don't have is that in-person, impromptu meeting. Everything else is the same. We do complex policy work and long-term projects. It's not the kind of work where you need to go to someone's desk and look over their shoulder."
Despite the slow start of telework among federal employees, AT&T officials said the government's push to increase telecommuting will bring about a huge change in the work force as a whole.
"It's a validation of the [telecommuting] practice. That's a very important step forward," said Brad Allenby, AT&T's vice president of environment, health and safety.
"Given the ambitious number [of telecommuters] set forth in the bill, this is going to constitute a huge new contribution to the telework community," Borelli said. "The government has a real opportunity to lead with advances in managing a mobile work force and products to support it. Any time government undertakes an initiative like this, it brings upon a whole new wave of products, and then those products move into industry. It could have a huge impact on business." Lisa Harrison was about to close her telework center, Sans Souci Centers Inc. in Chantilly, Va., early in the afternoon Sept. 11 when a call came in from the Herndon, Va., office of beer brewer and distributor Gambrinus Co.
The Dulles corridor office building that houses Gambrinus was evacuated in response to the tragedies in Washington and New York, where terrorists had plowed hijacked airliners full of people into workplaces full of people. Thousands of people were in danger or already dead, the nation was in shock, and tall office buildings weren't where anyone wanted to be.
But four people had flown into Dulles International Airport for meetings at Gambrinus that day and had nowhere to go. Harrison kept her telework center open for them.
"We were going to go home until the call came in. It felt good that we were providing someone a service," said Harrison, president and chief executive officer of Sans Souci.