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Telework is about to take off, officials say

The federal government is on the brink of shifting toward a culture of telework, according to agency heads.

During a Thursday Telework Exchange Town Hall, federal officials said last winter's Washington-area snowstorms, along with recent legislation, the potential for increased productivity and a more environmentally friendly workplace, have pushed agencies closer to adopting widespread telework options.

"It's a tipping point for the business case," General Services Administration chief Martha Johnson told reporters. "The business case is not just finances and it's not just employee happiness -- it's also sustainability, and it's security. Those four together really make a robust argument that it's hard to back away from."

Agencies soon could be required to implement formal telework programs. The Senate on Sept. 30 approved compromise legislation to expand telework opportunities across federal agencies. The bill, which requires agencies to develop formal policies, employee agreements and manager training programs, must pass the House before being sent to President Obama.

According to Johnson, the government's commitment to reducing the number of buildings it occupies, along with the amount of money saved in commuting costs, creates a strong argument for telework and exemplifies good management. A recent Telework Exchange study found federal employees spend an average $138 per month on fuel, but working outside the office can save them $55.52 for that same period.

"That means money in the pocket for people and it means time available for sanity, for additional work," Johnson said.

It also can mean more money in agencies' pockets. Speaking Thursday on the campus of The George Washington University for the 2010 GreenGov Symposium, Danette Campbell, senior adviser for telework at the Patent and Trademark Office, said her agency's telework program is estimated to have saved the cost of securing $11 million in real estate. PTO's initiative began in 1997 with just 18 employees working from home. Today, more than 5,600 of the agency's employees are teleworking from one to four days a week. Telework is a "big part of the culture" at PTO, Campbell said. "It is a business strategy."

During his keynote address at the town hall event, Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry said he will encourage agencies to take several steps in rolling out telework initiatives. They should begin with the presumption that all employees are eligible to telework and negotiate agreements to carefully define results workers must achieve, he said. Agency leaders also have to determine how to address underperformers and get past a "butts in seats" management culture. Finally, OPM must refine data collection processes to properly measure achievement, Berry said.

"Productivity gains are going to be essential," Berry said. "To get the most from our employees, we need to invest in them with training and equipment so they can work wherever they need to and wherever they want to."

Johnson and Berry agreed the objective is to significantly increase the number of employees working outside the office, which will boost productivity and wellness.

"Our long-term goal is to have the vast majority of our workforce telework on a regular basis," Berry said.

Norah Swanson contributed to this report.

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