5 strategies for taking telework to new heights

The latest technologies and refinements to managerial best practices offer new opportunities for improving and extending telework programs.

A decade ago, the underpinnings of federal telework consisted primarily of slow Internet connections and a handful of policy best practices culled from industry. Resources and attitudes have evolved over time, but in the two years since the Telework Enhancement Act gave new urgency to enabling employees to work remotely, there are signs that adoption rates are finally ready to accelerate.

Mobile technology is becoming ubiquitous, fueled by the growing popularity of tablet computers and smart phones. Bundled telecommunication services routinely deliver high-bandwidth Internet connections to home offices across the country. Mix in social media applications and other collaboration tools that facilitate interactions among colleagues, and the federal workplace looks like a teleworker’s dream. Anytime, anywhere access to key agency data and applications can make far-flung workers feel connected to home base while managers keep their fingers on the productivity pulse of the organization.

On closer inspection, however, the dream is butting up against some hard realities. Although some agencies are teleworking leaders — such as the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, which reports telework participation rates of 86 percent — only about 25 percent of eligible employees governmentwide were teleworking as of September 2011, according to the Office of Personnel Management’s most recent report to Congress on the subject.

Some of the roadblocks are clear. As long as the federal government faces blistering scrutiny about how it manages scarce resources, many managers prefer to rely on traditional oversight practices that are based on keeping a close watch on workers. And although the latest mobile technologies can facilitate teleworking, agencies must first address the security and data management challenges that come with the widespread use of those innovations.

Nevertheless, telework veterans at federal agencies and a growing number of consultants say new policies and management practices are emerging to help address federal teleworking challenges while capitalizing on benefits such as cost reduction and increased efficiency.

Here are five new ways to take teleworking to the next level.

1. Combine new technologies and targeted training to clear away managerial roadblocks.

OPM’s recent status report acknowledged that managerial resistance remains a significant roadblock to boosting telework numbers: "Participants shared that some managers are used to being able to see their staff members physically working in the office (typically described as line-of-sight management) and that they find comfort in this dynamic."

Kate Lister, president of the Telework Research Network, calls this a command and control approach to management. In other words, “I’m the boss, you’re the employee,” she said.

By contrast, telework forces managers to set objectives and then measure the outcomes rather than simply being time-and-attendance watchdogs. Over time, a management approach that focuses on outcomes could better align supervisors with the knowledge workers who dominate today’s federal agencies. But first, some senior and middle managers will need a fundamental change in attitude.

Accordingly, agencies are combining new technologies with updated managerial training programs to break down barriers to telework. For example, some managers build roadblocks by playing the security card. “It’s an easy thing to say it isn’t safe for large numbers of an agency’s staff to work from home,” said Josh Sawislak, a senior fellow at the Telework Exchange.

Today’s IT managers, however, have more than virtual private networks and anti-malware software to secure agency assets. They also have the federal government’s cloud-first initiative.

“In a cloud environment, everyone’s a teleworker because they’re accessing data in a remote location,” Sawislak said. “If you follow the proper processes, you’re as safe working from home as from the office.”

Another enabler is desktop virtualization, one of a collection of technologies that deliver applications and data from central servers to end-user devices.

“Teleworkers can connect to a remote computing environment using many types of hardware, ranging from desktop PCs to tablets,” said Shawn McCarthy, a research director at IDC Government Insights. The approach can bolster security because sensitive data resides in data centers rather than on end-user hardware, enabling IT experts to manage it closely.

Agencies appear to be taking desktop virtualization seriously as a telework tool. In April, the Telework Exchange released survey results showing that top-performing telework agencies believe remote desktop access is among the top five most important telework/mobility tools.

Officials at the Environmental Protection Agency are testing virtual desktop options with the goal of choosing and launching one by the middle of next year. If that happens, the new technology will blend with last fall’s launch of an EPA employee portal that provides centralized access to internal information, Web conferencing and applications. According to an agency spokesman, the portal uses a new remote access tool with single-sign-on capabilities, providing an easier way for employees to securely log into the agency’s network.

Yet telework veterans stress that overcoming managerial roadblocks requires more than just a technological fix. Regular and ongoing training is needed to help supervisors understand the intricacies of setting objectives and managing those objectives.

“Focus on how to build goals, build trust and communicate at a distance,” Lister said.

Resources for encouraging such buy-in include OPM courses at Telework.gov and Graduate School USA’s half-day session for managers.

Such training could pay off beyond the direct impact on teleworking initiatives. “By managing for results rather than conduct, we are actually seeing higher productivity,” said Michael Phillips, acting principal deputy inspector general at TIGTA.

2. Resolve productivity-sapping technical glitches and unnecessary divisions between on-premise and remote workers.

Teleworkers often end up with two agency-provisioned computers: a standard desktop PC for use while in the office and a laptop PC for remote work. Office-bound workers with a single device might see this as unfair treatment, but the reality is that a laptop used only sporadically has an increased risk of service headaches. Before the teleworker can be productive, he or she must wait to load software updates, security patches, new virus signatures and other revisions.

Therefore, agencies should create a common hardware policy for all employees, whether they work remotely or not. For example, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office provides standard laptops and docking stations to all employees, along with related training and technical support, said Danette Campbell, the agency’s senior adviser for telework.

USPTO currently manages more than 7,000 teleworkers, or roughly 86 percent of eligible staffers. Standardizing on laptops means teleworkers who have received training in working remotely avoid the productivity delays that come with toggling between two computers to do their work.

The growing pressure to allow employees to use personal mobile devices for work — the bring-your-own-device movement — also comes into play. EPA and others recognize that shifting hardware costs to employees could eventually enhance telework’s return on investment but could also push common hardware goals further out of reach.

“BYOD cuts both ways,” the spokeperson said. The agency allows some limited activity from personal devices, but full access to agency resources requires a government-issued or an authorized device with multifactor authentication. And although the agency has tested some relevant technologies, it has not created a business case or policy framework to allow employees to use their own devices for work.

3. Use collaboration technology wisely to facilitate interactions, but use in-person meetings when necessary.

The latest video technologies and collaboration tools can support interpersonal interactions and ensure that everyone is working with the same information. But agencies must understand the limits of those tools, and they shouldn’t allow videoconferences to replace all physical interactions.

“We’re human; we need some physical and social interaction,” Sawislak said.

Also, the right infrastructure must be in place to make those resource-greedy technologies work reliably.

Agencies should start with a foundation of voice over IP, a technology infrastructure that sends data files, phone calls and video over a single network.

“I like VOIP for teleworking because it is seamless,” Campbell said. “I have just one telephone extension, so a call will follow me depending on where I am.”

VOIP also provides the underpinnings for unified communications — systems that can handle voice calls, instant messages, online chats, webinars and videoconferencing. Those systems not only route phone calls to the right phone, they can deliver e-mail and voice messages and even cross communications boundaries so that a text transcription of a voice-mail message pops up on a teleworker’s mobile phone.

But VOIP and unified communications quickly eat up bandwidth, which means that employees’ remote offices must have high-speed Internet connections. USPTO requires teleworkers to install cable or DSL Internet services and fully compensates them for the cost if they give up their agency office space.

Otherwise, USPTO offers two alternatives. If the home connection is also used for personal activities, teleworkers may receive a stipend for as much as 50 percent of the Internet bill. If the connection is used solely for agency business, teleworkers may be eligible for reimbursements of as much as $100, Campbell said.

But with broadband services becoming common in many households, some agencies are finding they don’t have to compensate teleworkers. TIGTA used to pay about half the costs, Phillips said, “but with bundling services today, we no longer provide payments, and that hasn’t had an impact” on telework participation.

4. Rightsize your office space.

One of the big draws of telework for agencies is consolidating office space and reaping the savings that result. Campbell estimated that it would cost $20 million to provide office space for the 3,700 USPTO employees who now work full-time from home. Similarly, TIGTA recently closed one office and has consolidated others.

“We gave up 13,000 square feet of space, and that was all possible because of telework,” Phillips said. That’s because staff members who telework three or more days a week are no longer assigned permanent office space.

To accommodate teleworkers who occasionally need a place to work on-site, many agencies rely on hoteling, an approach in which teleworkers use communal cubicles and meeting rooms. But tracking who needs what and determining what space is available at a given time can be difficult.

Space reservation software can help. It lets workers reliably book office resources. Applications from companies such as AgilQuest, Dean Evans and Associates, and DeskFlex track an organization’s internal resources and let workers schedule space from mobile devices.

A start-up company called LiquidSpace extends that idea with an application that acts as a clearinghouse for spaces available in 200 large cities across the United States. Space providers include corporations and hotel chains with extra square footage, as well as city governments such as San Francisco and Palo Alto, Calif.

5. Mitigate policy risks that can tarnish a telework program.

Skepticism about telework by tradition-minded managers isn’t the only roadblock to increased participation. Recent criticisms of government telework practices have come from congressional sources who complained about undocumented costs attributed to teleworkers. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, sent a letter in June criticizing GSA for poor documentation related to the status of 36 teleworkers.

Other critics are raising legal questions about blurring the lines between when teleworkers are officially on and off duty, especially when they publicly voice personal opinions.

“Clearly, we don’t want government employees engaged in political activities, but how do we differentiate their official position?” Sawislak said. For example, if an agency leader includes his or her job title in a Facebook profile, is that simply biographical information or a sign that any postings are part of the person’s government activities?

“It’s so easy to push out personal information today that we don’t always have time to think about the legal ramifications of what we’re doing,” Sawislak said. “Just as in the early days of e-mail, we have to develop new protocols.”

To address those concerns, a House subcommittee began exploring possible revisions to the Hatch Act, which restricts the political activities of government workers and was last updated before the Internet became a mainstream resource. The revisions could create a new definition of what constitutes the federal workplace by addressing remote work and the use of personal devices.

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