Why telework will never work on snow days

Oh the stories that have emerged about Federal employee’s week off during snowpocalyse. The comments on Mike Causey’s recent story about the snow and telework sum up the issue. While OPM provides guidance on telework during Government closure, OPM also clearly states “…non-emergency employees (including employees on pre-approved paid leave) will be granted excused absence (administrative leave) for the number of hours they were scheduled to work.

Besides the desire to do a good job what incentive is there for telework employees to be productive during official closures when their colleagues are earning admin leave? There isn’t any! Why should you log into the system when you co-workers aren’t available to read emails, complete action items, or simply do their job? You might aw well get out and shovel like the rest of the city (or take part in a snowball fight).

If the Government can provide incentives for employees to work (I know, you get paid for working, novel idea huh?) and until there is a culture change in Washington, telework during Government closures will remain the exception rather than the rule.

What do you think?

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Sterling Whitehead

Benjamin, If you were put in charge of getting gov’t employees to telework on snowdays, what incentives would you put in place?

Benjamin Strong

That’s a good question Sterling. I think offering time off at a later date would certainly encourage people to work when they are stuck at home. That way they can take the time when it is warmer!

Andrew Krzmarzick

Benjamin – Just got off Federal News Radio talking about this very issue with Francis Rose and Christina Morrison

I think telework adoption will continue to be slow, but steady. There are so many reasons to implement teleworking…from cost savings to better work-life balance to reduced carbon emissions. And the next generation will demand it.

Also, check out the great feedback we got from people who were teleworking (or not) during the snow days in this forum: https://www.govloop.com/forum/topics/snowpocalypse-was-your-agency

Benjamin Strong

Thanks Andrew. I believe in the virtues of telework. I also know the reality of being one of the few that actually does it. If I am pumping out product but my colleagues aren’t around to act why should I work? Give me a toboggan and some hot chocolate with Baileys!

Andrew Krzmarzick

Heh heh…nice image…toboggan, hot chocolate and Baileys.

Forget “What’s in your wallet?”

I want to know what’s in your thermos!

Anyway, good point – if my colleague’s not working, my incentives are:

– pride
– way too much work
– deadlines
– if I can and don’t, then I could get fired
– bring it up at performance review and ask for a raise
– it’s the right thing to do


Sterling Whitehead

I like the deadlines point that Andrew made.

What if your boss said, “Okay, I want X, Y and Z done by the end of the snow day”? Would that be an incentive?

Benjamin Strong

Sterling, Andrew;

That certainly wouldn’t be any incentive for me because even if I got it done I would be forwarding it to people who aren’t in the office. Who cares if I meet deadlines if my co-workers aren’t at work? Their kids are off, the schools are closed, nobody is at work.

Young single tech savy workers who don’t have to shovel may get things done. If you are like me though you are trying to get the driveway clear, keep the kids from killing each other, and hoping the oil man can make your monthly oil delivery. Work can wait.

How many supervisors really logged in during the snow storm? I don’t think my boss would care if I ever logged on during the storm. Shucks, he was too busy shoveling as well.

The other issue is worker access. Those of us with critical jobs and a technical gene may find it easy to log in and work. What about the GS-5 non-emergency worker that “must” approve paperwork before a procurement can be made. What if that person doesn’t have the home infrastructure to log in remotely? I know I am throwing out lots of “what if’s”.

The culture needs to change. How do you change culture in Government? Offer time off or cash!

Kevin Lanahan

As long as there are kids off school, it’s gonna be hard to convince parents to telework on a snow day.

If there is a natural disaster (like a snow storm), even teleworkers need to dig out their driveways, sidewalks, neighbors, etc. They just don’t have to leave work early to brave traffic. So why not work, and be glad that you can keep the government going while your coworkers struggle to get home?

Scott Horvath

One thing that is an incentive is “credit hours” or the ability to accrue annual leave for the hours you work while being considered “closed” due to some weather related event. Right now that’s not the case. When the government closed b/c of the snow many people considered it a paid day off. However other people, like myself, also worked during those days off. Granted I didn’t work every day/full day (I did have a driveway to shovel, screaming kids, etc). However, the hours that I did “telework” when the gov’t was closed did not count as credit hours, but rather regular hours. Many of the points you made are true about not having an incentive. But if credit hours were given that would be incentive enough for me and many others I think.

Now, I don’t ONLY telework when the weather is bad. I telework quite a bit. I often find myself logging in (not required to) in order to catch up on a project or complete some tedious items so I don’t go insane the entire week. Plus if someone calls me to fix something right away I can login easily and fix it. I have that flexibility and it’s great. But even when I do work from home, after hours and not required to, I actually get credit hours for that time worked. Why should “snow days” be any different?

Amanda Blount

I was less than 12 hours out of surgery, and on sick leave. I am not a teleworker and I had soldiers calling me on my cell phone about contracts we had out. AND YES I WAS HELPING THEM. Just because I had my appendix out does not stop soldiers needing lodging, food, and etc. I wish I could telework – I would get more work done. I personally would work on a snow day – there is always something that can be filed, and in contracting, I have contacts in CA that can be called. The whole country was not under snow. So, here is my gripe, I am a grown up, I get more work done from home then most people do at work — so let’s change the work environment and expect grown ups to accomplish what they need to do, in between digging out the driveway. Yes we had a huge snow storm too and while warming up from digging out, I was making phone calls and faxing stuff from home – and no I did not put in a comp sheet. Maybe, I am wrong, but I believe that there comes a time in your life, a level of experience and expectations, that even when it snows, you look in your gut, and you realize you are where you are because someone trusted you to do a good job, so you do it.

Dan Taylor

Agree with Ben the issues are cultural and I have hope we can change the culture.

This was my first time when I wasn’t one of the mission essential folks who had to keep working. Now that I’m flying a desk instead of a helo, the work stoppage convinced me that I’ve got to make sure my team can keep doing the mission when DC is closed, whether it’s for snow, H1N1, or whatever.

How can we make it more palatable to telework on snow days? Treat civil servants like adults and expect them to act like adults the rest of the time. Give folks more flexibility to telework on regular days. Give them credit for hours worked on nights on weekends. Expect that on a snow day they may be able to do their job so much more productively that they can do what needs be done to execute the mission between shoveling and sledding with the kids. Find out why folks like Amanda aren’t allowed to telework, and fix that. I’ve seen posts from lots of people who say their managers won’t allow them to telework. That’s a leadership issue that needs to be fixed.

Donna L. Quesinberry

Wow, if incentive to work is solely based on what others are doing in the work center, everyone could hail the most unproductive fool in the room as the lead on “effort” and “initiative.” I’m a strong proponent towards Telework, Telecommuting, TelePresence, and my company lauds the inVirtual Work Way of Business Model. With a leading Federally Educated Telework Consultant on my team that has worked with the USPTO (a leader in Telework), GSA (another Telework forerunnre), and being involved in the Telework Exchange – I believe most “real” Tele-professionals are just that – consummate pros who do what it takes to get the job done.

If you are talking about weather emergencies and being taxed with Telework by a manager who allows 1/2 the team liberal leave while you are stuck carrying the weight of a project – that’s not true Telework – that’s mis-management.

Eventually, the carbon footprinting, savings in utilities and building expenses as well as the capacity to amass the federalism across the nation rather than in “hubs” will be a greater share of the federal sphere. This is a naturally occurring event – that I do believe will grow at its own momentum by necessity as well as leading-edge thinking.

So that you are aware – statistics state that over 50% of all Teleworkers | Telecommuters | Virtual Personnel earn over the median wage, a larger share of those workers are men, but for the non-managerial telecommuter it may appear an on-site management team is necessary to keep the Teleworker committed to their requirements. My personal opine is that is not the case…

Interesting stats:

By 2000, at the turn of the Millennium, there were over 15 million USA teleworkers,[10][10] over 4 million UK teleworkers[11][11], and 4 million mainland Western Europe teleworkers[12][12]. The implications for Europe were that 8 million or more computer-home-offices had been equipped, almost all with Internet access provided by the employers (including about 25% self-employed). From UK and USA surveys it can be assumed that about 25% of the computer-home-offices were used on any one work-day; giving the bases for calculating the impact on road and telephone traffic[13][13].

Benjamin Strong

Be careful giving credit hours for time worked. As I recall, credit hours need to be taken in the same quarter they are earned. Not much of a bonus if you can’t get the time off. Comp time may work. How about we really think out of the box and look at how Best Buy handles workers schedules?

Scott Horvath

whatever the policy ends up being, if it gets changed, it just needs to be flexible enough to take into consideration these issues that people are bringing up. Everyone has a valid point and interesting ideas. Everyone seems to be on the same page, too, with the benefits of teleworking.

Amanda Blount

WOW Benjamin – Great article. I am very interested in the schedules at Best BUY. The article was written in 2007. I wonder how ROWE has survived in the last three years in the economy. I was very interested when they mentioned an employee who only went to work 1 day a week because they lived so far away. And, here is something I find also interesting; the folks who did not like ROWE were worried about the bosses expecting many more hours out of you since you can work from anywhere. Again, maybe I have the wrong opinion, but, I have worked in many positions in my life and I have very rarely believed I have a 40 hour work week. When I owned my own company I worked 40-50 hours (even if it was at home ordering products, or doing paperwork), and when I was in sales, the more hours I put in the better I did, so for me I bring that work ethic to any job. (and by the way, I spent alot of time with my kids and my kids are the same way – they are hard charging young adults who work harder then must kids their age)

Have I been taken advantage before, because I don’t mind picking up the extra hours – well of course, but eventually bosses get promoted or you move to a new job; a sucky boss does not last forever (it just seems that way). So, let me work from where ever my blackberry and my laptop works, (give me a smart phone and you will really see results) and I will bring in the results. I hate lame meetings just so people can hear themselves talk, or the worst meetings ever – A MEETING TO MAKE A DATE FOR A NEW MEETING – that is the worst of all. I hate mandatory fun for the office. I love my co-wrokers – I really do, and I really am a fun person, BUT, I also love my job and I hate wasting time when I can be productive. Best Buy is on to something, and I may just give them a call to see how the ROWE thing is working.

Amanda Blount

Kind of off topic – But I truely believe as our parents (baby boomers) become older and began to need their children, the health industry will change so much, plus be a little overwhelmed, more people will demand telework options. Before my father passed away, I changed jobs just so he could live with us. I worked in the medical field between contractors and VA, and INS companies, and am very happy to say I was able to work at home many times, and when my fatehr was sleeping or outside I could make phone calls, when my husband was at home (or my older kids), I could meet with clients. I was voted one of the best reps. during this time. I moved on to another job when my father passed away, but telework will work wonders when parents need just someone to be home with them, or in between in-home nurses visits. FLEX time and telework will be a huge resource when we adult chilren need to step up and care for the parents. My mother is still alive and I am sure I will need to make those decisions again one day, and when I find a company or agency who offers telework or flex time I will need to go to whoever understands, (example) I can work through lunch, but I need to be home to make sure the parent takes afternoon meds. Again, a little off topic, but this situation is playing out all over America and it is only going to get worse (or better – depending on how you look at it).

Peter Sperry

This entire thread is an example of why most taxpayers have so much distain for government workers! We are paid a salary and expected to provide a product in return. The government does not stop paying our salary when it snows. Why should we expect some sort of “incentive” to continue providing the product? You need credit hours to telework when it snows? How would you react if OPM changed the rules to make all snow days liberal leave but then allowed you to reclaim credit hours if you could document (including when you log on/off, actual work performed etc) telework from home? Typical situation could be: you get charged 8 hours off your accrued leave time, document 4 hours of work and end up with a net loss of 4 leave hours? I doubt many feds would be too thrilled with the trade off. I would prefer this deal: When OPM closes the govt. for snow, I work from home and continue to provide the deliverables my boss expects and he continues to approve my pay while neather of us watches the clock to document how many hours were or were not consumed in the process. BTW, isn’t that the real advantage of telework with or without snow?

Benjamin Strong

Peter, government closure for snow days is rare. When it does happen, however, OPM provides empoyees administrative leave. I applaud your willingness to work but we don’t work in a vacuum. You need to forward things to people. Supplies need to be ordered, papers routed, clearances.. well, cleared.

Look at your workforce. We rely on a huge contingent of low and mid grade employees to actually get the work of government done. While we may fancy ourselves the movers and shakers of government but the reality is that our work must get routed, approved, forwarded, collated, etc by the GS 5 to 9 range. If that cohort doesn’t have the technological infrastructure (and many of them don’t) to telework then it won’t work. Period.

The next time it snows and OPM gives you a day we should just say thanks and shovel the walk. Until the culture changes and access to the technology becomes the rule rather than the exception you will be sending work to an empty office.

Sorry to be so blunt! BTW I did (do) log in during snow storms. I diligently forward my emails and products to people who are not in the office. But that is because I can navigate the multiple log ins, have broadband internet access, and have been granted a government laptop. Lots of barriers to entry.

Thank you for your insight!

George Danilovics

As an IT Director who manages an IT Department there are no such things as days off. There are only days where we don’t have to work in the office. With the warnings that the snow was coming my staff were able to schedule shifts where each of them would field tech support questions from staff. Teleworking was a necessity as we continued to provide services to employees (COOP anyone?)

Teleworking may not be 100% as productive as “real work” but I know I accomplished a lot via e-mail and my lil blackberry. My staff also used this time for other tasks. Some took online training & tests. Others performed systems maintenance. A laptop, blackberry, dvr, and mulled wine…what else do you need?

Benjamin Strong

George, you are lucky. You staff is equiped and empowered to stay connected. My technical team, responsible for keeping the Amver system up and running, is 100% connected and accessable as well. The trouble is the masses. They either cannot connect or aren’t considered “important” enough to warrant connectivity.

It will probably take some sort of significant long term event (man made or otherwise) to convince leaders the rank and file should be empowered to work from alternate locations.

George Danilovics

@ Benjamin

You are correct, a lot of other departments are not yet suited for teleworking. 99% of our processes are still paper…Yes, I fill out a paper time sheet and a 4-page carbon copy purchase order. Yes, I do have plans to eliminate both of those by the end this calendar year.

I’m just putting the finishing touches on our COOP document which was justification for the purchase of an Enterprise Content Management suite (OpenText). COOP –> OpenText –> Disaster Recovery –> Electronic forms & workflor –> People teleworking When you tie a bunch of projects and objectives together it makes getting the $ a lot easier. (See the attached PDF of a picutre I put together for the executive staff to see how all these projects tie together). ECM COOP Tie Together.pdf

Brandon Jubar

Just a couple thoughts on this entire discussion so far:

I find it interesting that there is so much “emotion” and debate around the issue of teleworking during snow days (or other weather emergencies, natural disasters, etc.), when those events are so rare that I believe they should be classified under “exceptions” or even “minutiae”. Not just on GovLoop, but on every forum I’ve visited lately, the people discussing teleworking seem to be getting lost in the weeds. Shouldn’t we start with the overall culture and the general rules, as a few folks here have suggested, and then focus on how we handle the exceptions?

I’m new to the Fed, but in the manufacturing culture where I spent almost 20 years, the “process” isn’t designed around the exceptions, but around the greatest common denominator. Start with the general and work your way to the specific. Often you’ll find that the specific cases take care of themselves once the general processes/rules have been implemented.

Benjamin Strong

You hit the nail on the head Brandon. It’s time to change the culture, give people tools and let them do good things. Once people are properly outfitted, equiped, and working from locations other than their cubicle, working during “exceptions” will be the rule! Cheers!

Henry Brown

Yesterday the director of OPM held a “town hall” virtual meeting. One of the subjects of the meeting was the process we were involved in during the massive snow days earlier this month. Yes everyone was “authorized” to take admin time during the 4 days, but according to the director there was over 30 percent of the staff teleworking.

And these numbers were based on the fact that there were/are a significant number of folks who have NO or limited ability to telework. Although I suspect that there are a whole lot of people who while reading email’s or engaging in teleconferences don’t think they have the ability to telework when in reality that is exactly that is what they are doing, especially if NOT sitting in an assigned office.

As the director said we have a long way to before we can fully enable a total telework environment. Suspect the biggest obstacle is the FEAR of supervisors of the loss of control. There are already tools available which can enable a telework environment: electronic signature, encrypted email’s, secure internet access, adequate bandwidth. The director also indicated that the full implementation would NOT be done terribly rapidly, if for no other reason than the significant costs involved to impower everyone to telework.

Benjamin Strong

Henry, thanks for the news on the “virtual” meeting. I knew OPM was actively working on the issue of telework. I am glad to see they are moving forward but have a reasonable expectation that this will take some time to implement.

Maybe if Google’s super fast internet comes to Washington it will help move things along.

Maria Barhams

I completely agree with your post. I do think that the culture would change more rapidly if all employees are given the tools necessary to work away from their duty station. (As a caveat this is coming from someone who regularly teleworks.) Simply giving eligible employees VPN access on their personal home computers would dramatically increase the number of employees that could work successfully from home. Addtionally clients like Microsoft Communicator (which has IM, phone, and videoconference capabilities) could also help to maintain continuity of operations. I think the first step would have to come from OPM. This agency has to define what is expected. What happened to all the emergency preparedness/continuity of operations programs?

Tamara Lamb-Ghenee

I know this is a bit after the snow days in DC but…I telework intermittently and have access to my entire desktop through VPN. Connections can be slow, but I find I am at least as, if not more, productive working from home on most projects. No one steps into my office to chat, I don’t have to answer irrelevant phone calls (remote voice mail access anyone?), and like many others I know who telework, I feel almost an obligation to make up for my added convenience by “keeping my nose to the grindstone”.

Those who complain that others “got a day off while I was teleworking” seem to have a different work schedule (or work ethic) than most government worker I know. If I take an unscheduled day off, it usually means extra work later on in the week with uncompensated extra hours, missed lunches, ect.

Managers and teleworkers need to move into the 21sth century and learn to look at work products rather than “face time” as the true measure of productivity.

Benjamin Strong

Tamara, your point is well made. Let’s look at telework from a different perspective however. We don’t work alone. We rely on many others to get the work done. How many lower graded personnel share your interest, capability, and zest for telework? If all the pieces aren’t in place then you are the exception rather than the rule.

If an employee, perhaps not a key decision maker but someone critical to completing the task, doesn’t have a home computer and cannot access files at home then what’s the point? Take the day off and enjoy yourself.

Telework needs to be made available to every level of government. The SES is equally as important as the GS-4.