Why telework doesn't always work

Federal agencies are pushing for telework as a way to function during emergencies, but widespread power, telephone and Internet outages could undermine that vision.

The recent severe storms that rolled over the Washington, D.C., region may have encouraged many federal employees to telework. But as our earlier story noted, the storm that hit June 29 disrupted power and communications, making it questionable how many would-be teleworkers would actually be able to do so.

Telework has been part of the federal government’s continuity of operations plans since the inception of the 2010 Telework Enhancement Act. Thanks to the policy, a growing chunk of the federal workforce has had the option to work remotely under unscheduled telework when severe weather conditions or other circumstances make commuting difficult.

President Barack Obama has said the goal is that the federal government should never close, and while a telework policy would technically allow business as usual, it doesn’t address what would happen in the event of an extensive outage that leaves homes and businesses without power.

Friday’s derecho storms left more than a million homes in the D.C. area without electricity, and many took to Twitter to gripe about not just their utility companies but their cloud, Internet and cell phone service providers whose services were down.

“Telework isn't a very effective option when you have no power (and your office, which does, looks like the best option for keeping cool),” commented one FCW reader.

Telework “is fine if, and only if, the Internet provider is up and running,” another reader pointed out.

“My power went out at 10:30 on Friday night and was restored on Saturday evening about 7:30,” wrote John Currant of Oakton, Va. “As of this writing, July 3 at 8:38 a.m., I do not have cable TV, Internet or phone service at my house. I normally telecommute one day a week. Yesterday, I came to the office instead of working at home and I am in the office now.”

Failing technology or lack of power aren’t the only challenges to relying on telework as a continuity-of-operations measure, said Jody Thompson, founder of the Results-Only Work Environment, a management strategy that evaluates employees on performance rather than presence.

“When the focus is on telework, continuity will always be at risk,” she said. “What happens at that moment is: Everyone starts to scramble to figure out who can take unscheduled leave, who can telework or who can work at all. What we’re trying to say, it’s time to go beyond telework.”

If the federal government is prioritizing results, rather than wasting time on figuring out who gets time off or who gets to telework, “then people would focus on what they need to do to get their work done,” said Thompson, who co-founded CultureRx, a consulting firm that helps organizations implement ROWE.

Outside of management challenges, roadblocks can manifest themselves in employees not knowing the technology they need to work remotely, said Tom Simmons, area vice president of the public sector at Citrix Systems.

In 2001 when letters laced with anthrax killed five people and infected 17, Congress shut down its Capitol Hill offices and sent staffers home. Employees were asked to use their remote access and telework systems to do work, but many were unfamiliar with the technology, Simmons said. 

"The help desk in the House of Representatives was brought down because everybody called to say, ‘I don’t remember how to do this, and I’m working from a laptop, and I need you to walk me through it,’” Simmons said.

Since that incident, mandates from the Office of Management and Budget have helped agencies embrace telework, removing the novelty factor and making employees more comfortable with the technology.

“We do have a sizable population of the federal workforce that teleworks on a regular basis,” Simmons said. “The fact that they’re used to coming into their work environment and using their applications and the data associated with those makes access to that environment in a situation like this much more routine.”

Echoing Thompson’s sentiment on how focus should be on results more than anything, Simmons said the culture change is to judge individuals more “on the outputs and the outcomes of their job than on the amount of time they put in to do it.”

But is the government ready for such a dramatic shift in thinking ROWE would offer?

“The government is wasting so much time and effort on a program that hasn’t worked for 50 years,” Thompson said. “They still don’t see they’re not focused on results first; they’re focused on managing people. . .  All federal employees are adults, but when they’re treated like children and told when they can take a break and work from home, they feel like children and they act like children.”