GSA clarifies telework rules for managers

New guidelines attempt to eliminate confusion about legalities, properties

“Guidelines for Alternative Workplace Arrangements”

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In its first formal guidelines on telework, the General Services Administration informs federal agencies how to manage programs for employees who telecommute at least one day a week.

“This guidance is a clear signal that we are not turning back,” said Stanley Kaczmarczyk, deputy associate administrator at GSA’s Office of Real Property and head of the governmentwide telework program. “There are no excuses for not having a robust telework program. We have a law on the books, and now we have implementing regulations.”

The Office of Personnel Management and GSA have previously provided informal guidance on telework, and many agencies have policies. Nevertheless, unanswered questions about what constitutes compliance and what equipment, funding and support are authorized have left some managers hesitant to make alternative workplace arrangements.

“By doing this, I hope to bring telework more in the mainstream for government,” Kaczmarczyk said. “With fierce competition for human capital and a retirement wave, telework provides a work style to retain older workers and recruit young workers looking for flexibility.”

According to the new guidance, telework must occur at least one day a week on a regular and recurring basis and not on an unscheduled, project-oriented or irregular basis.

Alternative workplace arrangements can include telework, hoteling, virtual offices, telework centers and hot desking. GSA defines a virtual office as a computer network that enables employees in different locations to work cooperatively. Hoteling and hot desking refer to shared, nonpermanent work spaces assigned to teleworkers on a first-come, first-served basis.

The new guidelines clarify that agencies must look first at alternative work arrangements for employees before buying or renting additional office space and document the decision. Before deciding on alternative work arrangements, for example, agency managers should consider such factors as space utilization, space flexibility to accommodate organizational changes, work life quality, individual and organizational performance, technology utilization and return on investment, and reduced facility costs.

Last year, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office saved $1.5 million in rent by having 70 percent of its trademark-examining attorneys work from home. Now in a new office building, USPTO is expanding the telework program to include patent examiners to save space during the next four years, when 4,000 patent examiners will be hired, said Bridget Quinn, a USPTO spokeswoman. “Telework is a work life issue, too,” she said. “With the higher cost of housing, people are living farther out with longer commutes to work.”

Federal telework has grown slowly. According to the most recent OPM survey, 18.6 percent of the federal workforce telecommuted in 2004. “There is certainly room for progress, and if we don’t keep up the pressure, we might have some backsliding,” Kaczmarczyk said.

Federal law recognizes that not all positions are appropriate for telework. Each agency must identify positions that are appropriate, and employees in those positions must be allowed the opportunity to telecommute if they are satisfactory performers, the guidelines state.

In developing the guidance, GSA consulted with an interagency working group from the departments of Homeland Security, Defense and Agriculture. Marge Adams, the USDA’s work/life manager who participated in the group, said many agencies are not managing their telework programs optimally. “One example is that agencies could use excess equipment for people who telework instead of disposing of it,” she said.

At the USDA, where Adams telecommutes two days a week, 4,064 employees — or 6 percent of the workforce — participate in the telework program. The program had 700 teleworkers when it began in 1998.

Many federal agencies have been using an improper standard for counting their teleworkers, Adams said. “Up to this point, agencies would count situational telework rather than regular, reoccurring telework as the law intended.”

Under the new guidelines, which became effective March 17, agencies may provide new or excess government equipment for alternative worksites. Agencies first must determine if equipment can be used in alternative worksites before designating it as excess.

Agencies may use appropriated funds to install telephone but not utility lines. Such funds may be used for telecommunications equipment — such as fax machines, Internet services and broadband access, desktop videoconferencing equipment, and voice-over-IP technology — in any private residence of an employee who telecommutes.

A 2006 federal telework survey conducted by CDW Government, an IT reseller, found that agencies expanded their technical support for telework initiatives last year, but information security continues to be a significant telecommuting challenge.

Telework doesn’t happen without some enabling technology, and yet fundamentally it really is not about technology, said Max Peterson, vice president of federal sales at CDW-G. “It’s about organizational and behavioral change.”

Welles lives in Bethesda, Md., and writes about work life topics for Federal Computer Week. She can be reached at
Florence Olsen contributed to this article.

How agencies can manage their telework programsThe General Services Administration has published formal guidelines to help federal agencies establish alternative work arrangements and comply with legislative mandates.

GSA’s guidelines include the following:

  • Agencies must consider offering employees the opportunity to telecommute before buying or renting additional office space.

  • Appropriated funds may be used for telephones, fax machines, Internet services and broadband access, desktop videoconferencing equipment and voice-over-IP technology.

  • Agencies may provide help-desk and other technical support to employees who telecommute.

  • — Judy Welles