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More Feds Telework Than Ever Despite Managers' Resistance

A. and I. Kruk/

Nearly half a million federal employees teleworked in fiscal 2015—a 70 percent jump over 2012 numbers—yet agencies are likely not making the most of telework programs across government.

In a report released Monday, the Government Accountability Office identified managerial training, managerial resistance and issues with documentation and data integrity as barriers to successful teleworking operations.

The report covered four agencies—the Education and Labor departments, General Services Administration and the Securities and Exchange Commission—and determined that while all “generally met reporting requirements” under the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010, they share common challenges.

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For example, only one agency among the four—GSA—requires all employees to complete online telework training in order to access an online telework agreement system, as required by Telework Enhancement Act. Yet, GSA was the only agency that did not require managers, who play an active role in the process by approving telework time for employees, to complete requisite telework training.

Managers and supervisors at Education, Labor and SEC who do not undergo telework training prior to entering into telework agreements "may not fully understand the agency’s telework policy before approving or denying a telework request,” the report states. “Without adequate knowledge of agency policy, these managers and supervisors may not be performing their assigned tasks in a manner that helps their respective agencies achieve telework program goals and objectives.”

GAO also concluded that three agencies “did not require a periodic documented review of telework agreements,” with the Education Department being the exemplary exception to the rule. The audit was particularly critical of Labor because it uses a paper-based manual system to manage its telework agreements. Outdated info makes it more likely employees with shifting work responsibilities could end up “teleworking more often than approved or on days not specified in their agreements.”

“Without a documented periodic review, these agencies lack an important internal control to better help ensure the accuracy of reporting, and to reasonably assure that policy guidelines are being maintained,” the audit states.

The audit identified an additional barrier all four agencies faced to implementing telework: managerial resistance. GAO, in meeting with focus groups from all four agencies, found numerous examples of managers who exhibited behavior that discouraged telework. Examples include not allowing changes to telework schedules, not approving situational telework requests, not allowing staff to call into staff meetings and limiting the number of telework days allowed.

In addition, some focus group members reported inconsistencies regarding how telework programs were implemented, with some apparently assuming “that supervisors were approving telework based on favoritism or other reasons not supported by agency policy.”

Conversely, focus groups from the four agencies reported examples in which managers supported telework, including hosting annual telework weeks, setting an example by teleworking themselves and allowing for flexibility and changes to employee schedules.

“According to federal standards for internal control, management, along with oversight from the oversight body, should determine through an evaluation process the extent to which deviations are occurring that would prevent the organization from achieving its objectives,” GAO stated.

Challenges in technology, too, were identified by GAO, with all four agencies combatting those issues head on. GSA is focusing on its mobile strategy when making IT investments, and Labor officials plan to up the number of programs they can support remotely. Likewise, SEC provides employees who telework three days per week or more with “laptops, monitors and printers to use in their telework location.” SEC also made investments in videoconferencing technology circa 2015 to support telework initiatives.

GAO issued recommendations to the agencies it studied, and the agencies generally agreed to implement them. However, the Office of Personnel Management, which oversees telework across the government, declined to implement GAO’s recommendations to create tools to help agencies assess and analyze barriers to telework, citing “limited resources.” OPM further declined to take steps to verify data agencies report that ultimately ends up before Congress, suggesting agencies were ultimately responsible for providing accurate data.

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