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Telework

What Is It?

Performing your job from a location other than a traditional office, away from the traditional supervision of managers, is called telework. Typically, teleworkers - the term given to those who work outside of the office - labor from home or a smaller office located closer to employees' homes (usually in a suburban setting) than the office. The satellite office is generally a stripped-down version of the home base and is outfitted to provide the basic needs of workers and has secure links into networks, but has no on-site management oversight. Less frequently, teleworkers can work from retail outlets, such as the local Starbucks or Barnes and Noble stores, that offer wireless connectivity.

The advancement of telecommunications equipment, most notably videoconferencing applications and increases in the amount of data that can be quickly sent over the Internet and downloaded onto a desktop PC at home, have made telework a viable option in the workplace.

Why Should I Care?

The General Services Administration has been pushing for more federal employees to sign up to telework. In September 2007, GSA Administrator Lurita Doan announced a goal of having 50 percent of GSA employees teleworking by the end of 2010. Currently, about 10 percent who are eligible to telework do so, while the governmentwide participation rate lags behind at 4.2 percent.

Still, more could telework, which tends to increase worker satisfaction, according to studies. More than a third of federal workers have been given the option to work away from the office at least part of the time, and 45 percent say their managers view telework favorably, according to a recent study. Congress is a strong supporter of telework, and a Senate bill, S. 1000, would make all federal workers eligible unless their job prohibits it.

Telework has received added attention given the recent spike in gasoline prices, an increase in the consequences of global warming and the cost and effects of commuting. If federal workers in the Washington, D.C., area teleworked, they could save 12.4 million gallons of gasoline each week, according to a 2005 study conducted by the Telework Exchange. Federal workers spent $19 million a day in late 2005 commuting to and from their jobs.

Also, top government executives view telework as a key component of keeping government agencies running in case of natural disasters or terrorist attacks.

Why Aren't More Feds Teleworking?

For all the benefits, including having political support, you'd think more federal workers would be teleworking. The reasons they aren't are numerous. On the technology side, information security is a big concern. Many agencies don't allow workers to take home information that is deemed sensitive. Laptops are hard to keep secure, and telework increases the possibility that information could be stolen. Some have suggested encrypting all data on the laptop, but encryption programs can be expensive and many IT managers avoid them because of the large amounts of time required to properly manage encryption.

Some telework supporters say giving employees access to government databases through a virtual private network would remove the concern that data could be stolen or lost from laptops because the data would never leave the office. Workers would just access the data securely from home. But managers remain skeptical that the security would be robust.

Other reasons include supervisors not wanting to give up managerial control and fear that employees would not be as productive and would take advantage of the arrangement. Other managers believe face-to-face meetings provide better communications that result in better ideas and more effective decisions that add greater value to the organization than what can be accomplished in teleconferences conducted over the phone. Others view telework as a perk, a benefit for better performing workers.

These views continue to create a culture in which telework is viewed as not a serious tool for government to use to improve business processes that lead to better outcomes.

How Do I Get Started?

In March 2007, GSA published in the Federal Register a notice outlining what IT equipment an agency needs to provide for teleworkers and what IT functions managers should make sure are set up. Also, the National Institute of Standards and Technology published in 2002 what an agency should consider when setting up teleworking operations. Although the NIST document was written to guide agencies through the planning for contingencies that take down normal operations, many can be applied to creating a telework plan. For example, NIST recommends that agencies:

GSA also recommends giving employees older computer equipment that has been replaced. Managers should consider what kind of work employees do -- if it requires secure access to databases or if it involves less sensitive work. Answers to those questions will determine what kind of system configuration employees need, especially the level of information security required.

Information security is a key component of any telework strategy and policy. According to its Federal Register notice, GSA recommends that agencies:

-- document all system and application configurations.

-- standardize hardware, software and peripherals.

-- make all security applications interoperable.

-- provide uninterruptible power supplies.

GSA also recommends giving employees older computer equipment that has been replaced. Managers should consider what kind of work employees do -- if it requires secure access to databases or if it involves less sensitive work. Answers to those questions will determine what kind of system configuration employees need, especially the level of information security required.

Information security is a key component of any telework strategy and policy. According to its Federal Register notice, GSA recommends that agencies:

-- encrypt all data on mobile computers and devices that carry agency data, unless the agency determines that it's nonsensitive.

-- allow remote access only with two-factor authentication where one of the factors is provided by a device separate from the computer gaining access.

-- use a time-out function requiring user re-authentication after 30 minutes of inactivity for remote access and mobile devices.

-- log all computer-readable data extracts from databases holding sensitive information and verify that each extract has been erased within 90 days or that its use is still required.

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