Feds Tiptoe Into Telecommuting Territory

Yahoo’s recently adopted ban on telecommuting is designed to boost creativity and cooperation by having employees work on-site. That may work for the search company, but elsewhere employers regard telework as a useful and productive option. That includes the single largest U.S. employer — the federal government.

Nearly 90 percent of workers who participated in last week’s Telework Week were federal employees. The event, organized by the Mobile Work Exchange, was open to both private and public sector workers. At the start of the week nearly 110,000 pledges were reported, a significant gain over last year when 71,000 workers participated. For 2012’s Telework Week, 90 percent of participants were federal workers.

“By creating a splash of awareness, it helps the federal agencies move forward on this and highlights the productivity and quality of life improvements that can be accomplished by teleworking,” David Graziano, Cisco director of security and unified access, U.S. Public Sector, told the E-Commerce Times. Cisco is a sponsor of Telework Week.

Signs of Telework Growth

“There is a direct correlation between our Telework Week growth and the growth of mobility in the federal government,” Cindy Auten, general manager of the Mobile Work Exchange, told the E-Commerce Times. “We attribute a lot of that growth to the fact that federal agencies are becoming more mobile and utilizing Telework Week to test out their IT security and mobility tools. Several agencies utilized the week as a stress test for their IT systems which, for example, allow them to function normally in the event of a major storm.”

The 40 percent gain in federal participation in Telework Week between 2012 and 2013 may be the strongest signal of federal interest in teleworking, because statistics compiled by the government itself are somewhat mixed. Government reports also suffer from a lack of current tallies, with a lag time of more than a year, even as advances in information technology fuel employee enthusiasm for alternative work arrangements.

One government indicator is in the number of federal workers who have been approved to engage in telework. To ensure that off-site work is conducted on a secure and productive basis, federal agencies don’t allow all employees to engage in telework, and require that certain eligibility standards are met for those who do work off-site.

By that measure, there has been a respectable gain in federal telework employee eligibility, from 25 percent of the workforce in 2011 to 33 percent in 2012, according to a report issued in November 2012 by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM). Almost a quarter of the federal workforce reported teleworking in some form, said OPM.

OPM’s figures could be somewhat flawed. “Some agencies report the total number of eligible employees, and some report just the number of workers who are actually engaged in telework. There doesn’t seem to be an agreed upon definition,” Kate Lister, director of research at the Telework Research Network, told the E-Commerce Times. “We have been in contact with OPM to resolve this.”

Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community survey, Telework Research Network’s latest update in Oct. 2012 showed that between 2005 and 2011 the number of federal teleworkers exploded by 424 percent. In 2011, however, there were only 159,000 federal employees classified as teleworkers — still far less than even 10 percent of all federal civilian employees.

Morphing Toward Mobility

Focusing too much on the classical category of teleworking — or telecommuting — may obscure the trend towards a broader concept of alternative work arrangements in both the federal and private sectors.

“We’re starting to see the word ‘telework’ replaced by the word ‘mobility,’ and that’s a good thing. It means that we are moving from a narrow definition of workplace flexibility to a more robust definition,” Naomi Leventhal, a director of Deloitte Consulting’s Federal Human Capital practice, told the E-Commerce Times.

“The old view of telework was that an employee would work from home one or two days each week on a standard schedule,” she said. “But federal agencies are starting to recognize that true mobility can only be achieved when they empower employees to make decisions about where to work on any given day, based on how they can best achieve their performance goals.”

Cisco’s biggest wireless business growth was in the government sector, including federal agencies, Graziano said. “We are not only seeing high interest in classic telecommuting, where a person stays at home working on a laptop at a desk, but also in mobile devices, especially with bring your own device (BYOD) where people can use mobile tools anywhere, at any time.”

Auten points out that her organization changed its name in January from the Telework Exchange to the Mobile Work Exchange to reflect the trend in various alternative work options. In a survey of 314 federal workers conducted by the exchange, 58 percent said that their agencies could take greater advantage of mobile devices. The survey was supported by Cisco, VMWare, Carahsoft and EMC.

Personal Devices Spur Interest

The survey indicated that more than 70 percent of respondents had used a mobile device for work-related tasks, but did not specify whether such activity reflected sporadic use of smart phones or more dedicated home use of portable laptops. Of those who reported using mobile devices for work purposes, 93 percent used laptops, 64 percent used smart phones and 19 percent used tablets.

The popularity of mobile devices, including BYOD utilization, is understandable for federal workers whose jobs are inherently tied to out-of-office fieldwork, such as factory safety inspectors who might find it more productive to use tablets or smart phones for data entry and record keeping instead of paper forms and clipboards. That’s not quite the same thing, however, as a desk job worker who utilizes a portable laptop at home.

Federal workers cite security concerns and manager recalcitrance as impediments to greater use of mobile work arrangements, despite federal policies designed to encourage off-site work. The Mobile Work Exchange survey showed that 55 percent of federal workers using smart phones use their own device for work, but 33 percent of these workers do not have password protection for the device. Generally, federal security for laptops is far more extensive than it is for smartphones or tablets.

In a December 2012 report, the federal Chief Information Officers Council noted a number of “barriers and gaps” that need to be addressed in order to maximize federal use of mobile technologies. Among these are technical and policy issues accounting for the caution involved in fully implementing telework and other mobile solutions. However, there appears to be little doubt that the pace of adoption will gain momentum.

“It is going to take some time for these agencies to transition to a culture based on trust and accountability,” said Deloitte’s Leventhal, “but when that happens, it will make a revolutionary change in the relationship between people and work.”

John K. Higgins is a career business writer, with broad experience for a major publisher in a wide range of topics including energy, finance, environment and government policy. In his current freelance role, he reports mainly on government information technology issues for ECT News Network.

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