Agencies continue to embrace and provide teleworking opportunities for their employees, but managers’ resistance to remote work and continued technology challenges inhibit wider adoption, according to a March report from the Government Accountability Office.
The 63-page report examined telework policies at four agencies as part a case-study review: the Education and Labor departments, the General Services Administration, and Securities and Exchange Commission. The GAO found that they met select requirements of the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 for telework eligibility and agreements, but hurdles still exist.
“Case study agency officials and some focus groups with supervisors and teleworkers report that while managerial resistance to telework has gone down, and telework technology has improved in the 6 years since the act’s passage, they remain the key challenges to increasing telework participation,” the GAO report notes. “In its 2014 report to Congress, [the Office of Personnel Management (OPM)] reported that the top two reported barriers to employees’ ability to telework were management resistance (22 percent) and information technology (IT)/infrastructure (20 percent). In its 2016 report, OPM continued to cite managerial resistance and technology limitations as barriers to telework.”
Challenges in Telework Training and Technology
As FedScoop reports, the 2010 law “encourages remote work among federal agencies and requires they develop formal telework policies and the Office of Personnel Management develop tools to improve telework obstacles and improve how data is reported to Congress.”
According to the report, the number of federal workers engaging in telework has been steadily rising, from around 301,000 in fiscal year 2012 to more than 427,000 in fiscal year 2015.
However, the GAO notes that while OPM guidance recommends managers complete telework training prior to approving telework agreements, three of the four agencies studied “did not have a mechanism to help ensure managers have completed this training before approving employee telework agreements.” Since managers may not have completed the training, they may not be familiar with telework policies, the report notes. Further, three of the four agencies “did not require a periodic documented review of telework agreements,” meaning “these agencies cannot be assured that the agreements reflect and support their current business needs.”
Consistent with the law, all four agencies described efforts to encourage telework participation and provide for the technology to enable it, the report notes. “However, GAO’s focus groups with teleworkers provided some examples of how supervisors may discourage telework participation and reported that some level of managerial resistance to telework remains,” the report adds.
In the past, the report notes, the GAO recommended that agencies assess technology needs of teleworkers and the wider organization; develop guidelines about whether the organization or the employee will provide the necessary technology, equipment and supplies for telework; provide technical support for teleworkers; address access and security issues related to telework; and establish standards for equipment in the telework environment.
At 10 of the 11 focus groups with supervisors and teleworkers that GAO conducted, the government watchdog found that teleworkers have experienced challenges accessing needed equipment and applications. Sometimes, this limits the type of work that could be done while teleworking, the report notes.
At seven of the focus groups, federal employees discussed how network connectivity or access was a challenge, including needing to repeatedly log on to the agency network after being disconnected and spending time getting assistance from their respective agencies’ IT help desks. One focus group with supervisors reported that when IT challenges come up, supervisors may have to cover teleworking employees’ daily tasks while the employee resolved the IT issues, according to the report.
If a teleworker’s phone or other IT is not working properly, the teleworker may be expected to return to the office to work until the issue could be corrected, the report notes.
“Case study agency officials described a number of actions to address telework technology challenges,” the report adds. “For example, these agencies provide dedicated help desk support to teleworkers; provide equipment, including webcams, to teleworkers; and have upgraded IT systems to support telework.”
Addressing Resistance and Improving IT
According to the report, agency and union officials say the frequency of telework varied across the agencies and supervisors.
“All four agencies noted in their telework policies that some supervisor discretion should be used when approving and monitoring telework agreements, but some agency and union officials said the resulting variation in telework usage contributed to a perception that the agency was inconsistently implementing the telework program,” the report notes. Examples of how managers sometimes discourage telework include not allowing changes to agreed-upon telework schedules, not approving situational telework requests, not allowing employees to call in to staff meetings, and limiting the number of telework days allowed, according to the report.
Employees have sometimes assumed that supervisors were approving telework based on favoritism or other reasons not supported by agency policy, the report notes. Employees also do not always feel comfortable voicing concerns about telework publicly for fear of negative consequences for their careers, the report found.
“However, if employees are not provided an opportunity to voice their concerns without concern for negative consequences to their jobs, agencies may be missing an opportunity to better identify and address barriers to telework, including managerial resistance,” the report says. “Addressing managerial resistance could help increase telework participation rates by reducing inconsistencies in how agency telework policy is applied.”
GAO recommends to each agency that they ensure supervisors complete telework training in a timely manner and improve telework data. GAO also recommends that OPM develop tools to help agencies assess telework barriers, and to improve telework data reported to Congress.
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