On April 11th, Kojo Nnambi had a show in which he explored Telework and the federal workforce. Mr. Nnambi introduced Max Stier who is President and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service and Nicole Ogrysko who is a Reporter for Federal News Radio. They discussed, among other things, how prevalent telework is in the federal workforce, the benefits of telework, the potential for abuses, and the relationship between telework and worker productivity.
Approximately one-fifth of the federal workforce telework, at least part of the week. According to Mr. Stier, technology makes it possible for most federal employees and they like it because it allows flexibility and it helps employees avoid the terrible DC rush hour traffic on some days. Telework can also be a great way to attract quality employees. It is a challenge for the feds to attract and retain candidates when in competition with the private sector that may offer positions with higher salaries and more benefits.
So why did the Secretary of Agriculture move to reduce the number of days an employee will be able to telework? Ms. Ogrysko stated it is an unexpected action, especially since Office of Personnel Management (OPM) put out a recent report that stated employees are happier and more productive if they telework. Apparently, the Secretary was walking through one of the USDA buildings and he was exclaiming, “where is everyone?”.
As with any policy, there have been problems with telework in the past. Both of the panelists referenced some issues with Patent and Trademark office, though they didn’t specifically identify the abuses. They remarked that with the federal government, there is a lowest common denominator in which the federal government will avoid problems instead of improving on its success. Additionally, relative to federal work-force policy, the U.S. Congress has a history of focusing exclusively on the bad actors and making an example of them for political reasons.
Some of the comments from the callers expressed both support and opposition to telework. Some felt it would be an excuse to do anything but work, take time during the work day to run errands, go to doctors’ appointments, go grocery shopping, etc. But there is technology for the employer to know if someone is online and working. One critic noted the vulnerability of cyber hacking with telework, but Mr. Stier noted that in theory, the feds should have appropriate tools in place to secure the work environment, whether working physically at the office or remotely.
One caller stated she actually contributes more hours when she teleworks than when she is physically at the office. I have teleworked myself, and I find it easy to work more hours in a day, especially in the afternoon, when you are working to get something finished before the day ends and you don’t have an upcoming commute home. Another caller noted benefits for employees with a disability or health issue, since they are not having to deal with the commuting challenges every day during the week.
The consensus among both panelists is that any abuses in teleworking may be a sign of bad management. The feds need a clear telework policy, but this is true for the private sector as well. It is not prudent to allow the problems with telework to overcome the clear value of telework to the federal agency or private company.
It is not clear if this initiative to reduce the use of telework is being done holistically or piece by piece by individual agencies. In either case, the federal agencies should be learning from each other to consider the advantages and disadvantages, so they can determine if telework would be appropriate for their work activities.
James Davenport is a TDM Employer Outreach Specialist, on contract with the Virginia Department of Transportation. Before that, James worked for Prince William County/Department of Transportation as a Regional Planner. In that capacity, he represented the county in regional forums and worked with planners and staff from other localities and transit agencies to help the region plan for its transportation future. For many years, James worked with the National Association of County as a project manager providing education and outreach to county officials, staff and key stakeholder groups on planning issues such as transportation, water quality, collaborative land use and economic development.