When the Telework Enhancement Act (TEA) became law in December 2010 proponents of working remotely had good reason to cheer. Yet today most telework programs at federal agencies still need further enhancement.
Telework has been around the federal government in one form or another for at least a decade. Thus, agencies have already had plenty of time for experimentation and pilot programs well before the enactment of the TEA a couple of years ago.
Number of Teleworkers Remains Low
According to OPM data, the number of federal employees who telework remains relatively low, especially for a sprawling workforce of about two million. The stats cited below are contained in OPM's annual report to Congress on the Status of Telework in the Federal Government, 2012.
The report states that while about 685,000 feds were eligible to telework, fewer than 170,000 actively participated in telework programs within their agencies.
This appears to be a gaping disconnect.
Therefore, many previous telework cheers have turned into jeers. Most discontent from feds arises from two common situations:
Bringing Agencies into Full Compliance
Of course not every federal job is conducive to telework, but many positions are (in whole or in part). Sometimes all it takes is for mid-level management to have an open mind, adapt to positive change, or simply get out of the way.
When it comes to spelling out telework policy for feds the Legislative Branch has already spoken. The Executive Branch has already spoken. What more must be done to finally bring federal agencies into full compliance?
OPM has made sure there's no shortage of detailed guidance and resources on how agencies can get with the program. Rather than taking more baby steps as the private sector sprints ahead, Uncle Sam needs to put his boot down on the neck of federal agencies.
Sensible Solutions for Standardization
So what are some sensible solutions for transforming telework policy into standard operating procedures throughout the vast expanse of federal agencies?
How does Uncle Sam take telework to the next level, where it becomes the rule rather than the exception?
Following are three proposals for making telework actually work on a systematic level for all eligible feds government-wide, about one-third of the entire federal workforce (based on the OPM report):
1) Stronger Leadership from the Top-Down. Agency heads should cogently communicate the need for increased telework, even if that means using a bullhorn to make a breakthrough. This responsibility should not be left solely to human resource staff, telework coordinators, office managers, etc. This is because when an agency head speaks, employees usually listen attentively and act accordingly.
Once the agency head makes it clear that telework is a top priority and a business necessity, management should fall in line like dominos -- from the SES down to front-line supervisors. But the command must come from the very top of the federal food chain and be articulated with vigor, especially to mid-level managers who may represent the most resistance.
2) Modify Management Performance Appraisals. Even with strong leadership from the top, some managers may need further motivation to budge and break out of the status quo. All federal managers and supervisors should understand that their professional performance is at least partially based on making telework actually work.
Management performance ratings and bonuses should be linked to successful telework implementation and fostering telework-friendly office environments for all eligible employees.
3) Additional Action by Congress. If necessary, Congress should consider more stringent follow-up legislation holding agencies accountable. How about tying a part of annual appropriations to meeting or exceeding uniform and numerical telework goals?
This would be a real incentive for agencies to adopt telework, especially during times of fiscal austerity. If it’s one thing agency heads understand it’s funding, or lack thereof.
If Congress were to pass a TEA Amendments Act, for instance, the website Telework.gov would quickly become the new bible for federal managers. This would allow the practice of working remotely to reverberate throughout all corners of the federal government.
Crediting OPM Efforts
OPM deserves much credit for pushing agencies to embrace and adopt telework. Still, much more needs to be done to expand telework to the full universe of eligible employees. Uncle Sam should step up his game in 2013 by making remote work more commonplace and desirable.
Federal agencies need to quickly transition their workforces from being telework eligible, to telework ready, to actually working remotely on a consistent basis. This would mean hundreds of thousands of feds teleworking government-wide.
It's about time to face reality: the traditional bricks and mortar, punch-the-clock structure of the federal workplace is changing, albeit slowly but surely -- regardless of resistance. Why? Because modern day innovations and advancements in technology are occurring at light speed.
In short, the future 21st century workplace has arrived.
"Technology, traffic, and the pace of 21st century life have all combined to make telework increasingly popular," OPM tells us.
"Widespread telework practices can help save on expensive real estate; telework can also increase employee productivity, as they face fewer interruptions and more focused time. And no one misses the commute. Employees have more energy and less stress when they work on telework, and traffic congestion and pollution decrease for everyone."
Well put OPM. Yes, telework really does work when done right. Uncle Sam needs more of it...now!
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* All views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only.