Why Aren’t More Feds Teleworking?

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Nearly half have been informed they're eligible, but few are doing it.

Nearly half of federal employees have been told by their supervisors that they are indeed eligible to telework, yet most aren’t doing so.

The Office of Personnel Management’s latest telework status report, released Wednesday, found that 47 percent of federal employees in September 2012 were notified of their eligibility to telework, yet only 21 percent of those eligible did so that month. That compares to fiscal year 2012 overall, when 30 percent of those eligible said they teleworked at least infrequently, likely accounting for employees who teleworked during agency closures and weather situations.

As a percentage of the overall federal workforce, just 10 percent of all federal employees teleworked during September 2012 (up from 8 percent in September 2011), while 14 percent teleworked to some degree throughout fiscal 2012.

While infrequent telework can help agencies achieve certain goals like emergency preparedness, it’s well-known that agencies will not realize the full savings from telework in areas like real estate and energy unless more federal employees telework more frequently. 

So if nearly half of feds are eligible to telework, why aren’t more doing so and more regularly?

Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics and the Telework Research Network, told Wired Workplace on Thursday that while the 2010 Telework Enhancement Act set firm requirements for agencies in counting eligible employees and drawing up telework agreements, it did little for agencies in terms of measuring results.

“It’s easier to say employees are eligible than it is to make it possible for them to do it,” Lister said. “There’s still this culture problem that middle managers don’t really support telework, and many have that command and control mindset that they like to have their minions around.”

In addition, the same obstacles that hindered telework before passage of the 2010 law are still there. A forthcoming survey of 150 federal executives by GWA found a number of factors holding back telework, from managerial resistance to ineffective training to inadequate technology, Lister said. “There’s not enough technology, and employees are not being taught to be effective using that technology,” she said.

Respondents to GWA’s report also cited concerns about how federal employees working from home will be perceived by taxpayers, many of whom hold stereotypes that federal workers are lazy, overpaid and have lavish benefits. One anonymous respondent to GWA’s report said their agency was chastised for participating in the annual Telework Week, Lister said.

To improve participation going forward, agencies will need to begin holding managers more accountable for expanding telework, a goal that could be achieved by measuring telework goals as part of a manager’s performance review, Lister said. Better and more consistent training is also needed, as is the need for professionals in areas like human resources, IT and real estate to begin coordinating their activities, she added.

“This was an unfunded mandate, and while there wasn’t a big cry from agencies to say they needed money to make it work, there was a big cry to say they needed technology, and that takes money,” Lister said.

Agencies also need to determine how to better measure telework participation and its return on investment – two areas that are not likely to be stable and consistent until at least 2014, when OPM is scheduled to deploy an automated system across government to more accurately assess employees’ telework habits, Lister said.

“Agencies have to ask who they are trying to compare to, the average U.S. company? Not if they want to hire the best and the brightest,” Lister said. “They should be benchmarking against the leading companies, and at the leading companies, they have 50 to 60 percent of their employees teleworking.”

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