Telework still faces managerial resistance

An oversight study of telework at four federal agencies found that managers can be resistant and tech issues can still inhibit worker performance.

Shutterstock image. Photo credit: goodluz / teleworking tech bro

The number of federal workers participating in telework plans continues to grow, but technological barriers and managerial inflexibility can inhibit remote work arrangements, according to a new study from the Government Accountability Office.

While technology is improving and resistance from managers is on the decline, these are still the top impediments to telework at federal agencies, according to 2016 data from the Office of Personnel Management cited by GAO.  

The congressional watchdog agency conducted case studies on telework at the Department of Education, the General Services Administration, the Labor Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission between Sept.  30, 2015, through May 31, 2016, to follow up on implementation of a 2010 law that put some boundaries and structure on telework at federal agencies.

In focus groups, GAO found that managers often discouraged telework by forbidding changes to agreed-upon work schedules, by not accommodating situational requests or not allowing call-ins to staff meetings.

Frequently reported IT challenges included network connectivity or access, repeated network log-ons after disconnects and IT help-desk calls. One focus group of supervisors, according to the study, said when IT challenges came up, they had to cover teleworking employees' work until the issue was resolved.

Along with the IT, managerial and reporting issues, however, GAO said OPM needed to do more to promote telework across the federal government. The study recommended OPM create more tools to help agencies assess and analyze barriers to telework.

Although OPM agreed that such tools were valuable and could work to increase participation, the agency told GAO that it has done what was asked.

In a response to GAO's recommendations, Mark Reinhold, associate director for employee services and chief human capital officer at OPM, said his agency has met its responsibilities under the 2010 act, providing training, policy guidance and tools for evaluating and managing telework programs. He added that "given limited resources," OPM isn't in a position to expand on materials and tools for areas not required by the 2010 rules.

OPM, the study said, has some challenges of its own in reporting accurate agency telework data.

"OPM may be missing opportunities to improve its data because it does not always follow up with agencies on significant data differences or outliers. The errors and invalid data in OPM's annual reports to Congress reduce the usefulness of these reports," the GAO study said.

In his response, Reinhold said the act didn't obligate OPM to devote significant resources to validate other agencies' data. He said his agency works with other agencies to collect and improve their data collection, but ultimately, OPM has to rely on agencies to provide complete, accurate telework data.