Until More Feds Telework More Frequently, Agencies Won't Save Much Money

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There's no single method for tracking return on investment, making it difficult to measure success.

Federal agencies’ ability to keep up the momentum on telework will largely rely on their ability to effectively demonstrate its return on investment. Yet even a recent Government Accountability Office report noted that agency telework programs are not yet mature enough to yield any real estate cost savings.

So when can agencies expect to see some cost savings associated with telework, at least when it comes to real estate? Agencies may actually see little to no real estate cost savings at all until employees telework on a more frequent, rather than ad hoc basis, says Cindy Auten, general manager for Mobile Work Exchange.

“In order to reduce real estate, agencies need to have a frequent telework program,” Auten said. “The stars need to be more aligned, and it’s not like every agency next year can reduce their real estate at the drop of a dime. Agencies have to have a good chunk of their workforce teleworking more frequently.”

Results of the 2013 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, released earlier this month by the Office of Personnel Management, shows that while 56 percent of federal employees say they have been notified of their eligibility to telework, just 5.1 percent do so three or more days per week. Instead, most federal workers are teleworking one or two days per week (15.9 percent), one or two days per month (6.7 percent), or an unscheduled or short-term basis (14.7 percent). Some of those eligible (13 percent) simply choose not to telework, the survey found.

Even as agencies expand telework from an ad-hoc to a more frequent basis, they still struggle to measure telework’s success in all areas, from real estate to retention. According to a new report by Global Workforce Analytics and Citrix, most agencies differ in their methods for tracking ROI.

The survey of 120 telework coordinators and executives found that most (61 percent) counted the number of regular teleworkers to a large or very large degree, while 51 percent said they simply count the number of telework agreements. Thirty-three percent said they measure success based on money saved, and just 31 percent said they tracked other positive effects such as reduced turnover and attraction and retention of new talent.

“Agencies that measure telework success by simply counting teleworking agreements or how many employees are doing it have some work to do,” the report states. “In their defense, it’s not because they don’t want to, they simply don’t know or don’t have the resources to do so.”

The challenges for tracking telework’s ROI extend beyond simply counting heads, however; some respondents to GWA’s report indicated that there really is no way of telling whether real estate savings are the result of telework or an agency’s response to the broader issue of mobility. The other side of that equation is determining whether a telework program’s failure is due to poor execution or the initiative itself.

OPM is currently piloting an automated system that will rely on employee time and attendance data to provide more accurate assessments of telework habits. That system is slated to go live governmentwide by next summer.

Mobile Work Exchange in September also launched a Telework ROI Calculator to help agency managers determine the cost savings and benefits of telework. Hundreds of federal employees have since used the calculator to help quantify progress -- an indication of the great need agencies have to effectively measure ROI to comply with the reporting requirements of the 2010 Telework Enhancement Act, Auten said.

“Agencies finally get that they need to telework for business reasons to help reduce real estate in a number of years,” she said. “That involves getting people to think about it not just as a human capital issue by getting facilities management and IT to help drive what telework really is going to do for the agency.”