How the federal government is missing the bus with its telework strategy

FCW cartoonist John Klossner is puzzled by the federal government's haphazard telework strategy.

Do not work

In reading the most recent foray by the federal government into teleworking policy, it occurs to me that this is becoming an annual event. For the past several years, the federal government has been trying to figure out some way to standardize teleworking for agencies and their employees. It's starting to feel like a New Year's resolution, with agencies on the treadmill, their list posted in front of them: "Lose a trillion budget dollars, get the entire country to eat carrots, create a coherent teleworking policy..."

In reading about this year's resolution one item in particular caught my attention -- "Currently, 102,900 of the 1.9 million federal employees regularly work remotely. Of the total workforce, 62 percent are eligible to telework. To encourage the practice, the Obama administration has set a goal of having 150,000 government employees teleworking on a regular basis by 2011."

Using my rusty math skills to roughly round these figures out, let me get this straight: 62 percent of the fed workforce is eligible to telework, and the administration's goal is to have 7 percent? Not to mention that from that 62 percent potential, only 5 percent is currently teleworking. "Encourage the practice?" Isn't that like needing to lose 10 pounds and encouraging people to give up cinnamon sprinkles on their mocca latte with whipped cream? If the people in charge of the space program had thought this way, they would have encouraged getting a man on the moon by having aspirants go to the top of the Sears Building.

This tiptoeing around telework is slowly taking the shape of following and not leading. In this story about the potential savings from telework, it’s noted that in a recent survey of government employees, “22 percent said they were teleworking without formal agreements, doing at least some of their jobs from home or elsewhere away from the office." ("Without formal agreements?" Is teleworking the new "don't ask, don't tell?"). Since these respondents said they were doing "at least some of their jobs" away from a central office -- and I'd be willing to guess that the majority of teleworking fed employees do so part time – it’s probably a safe bet the number of federal teleworkers already exceeds the stated goal for 2011.

I tried looking for some statistics about the amount of teleworkers in the world at large. While reports on teleworking in the private sector give a wide spectrum of figures -- often being used to support the argument of the particular author -- the one constant is that the amount of people working outside of a central office has been rising and will continue to rise. The federal government's lagging behind this change in work habits can only harm their efforts on several fronts.

Among them is recruitment. How do federal agencies, with their aspirations of having 7 percent of their workforce teleworking, hope to attract talent from a generation that has been working anywhere but a central office for their entire lives? Will the feds just dance around telework policy until the generation that has spent their careers working from the office retires? I would hope we could be more proactive on this issue, rather than waiting for the cubicles to slowly empty.

And I'll be the first to admit that teleworking is not for everyone. Besides the security and communication concerns, what can start out as an attempt to better balance one's work and personal life can sometimes lead to an uncomfortable integration of the two without clear borders between your personal and professional lives. It takes considerable discipline to telework, and I find numerous anecdotes of people glad to return to the protected environs of the office.

Unfortunately, the feds' approach to teleworking is echoing their timeliness on other technology issues -- "we'll get right to work on teleworking standards as soon as we finish those fax machine regs" -- leaving the workforce to figure out a way to make their federal employee lives reflect the world they live in outside the office, with confusing results. This is reinforced by the numerous anecdotes I find commenting on management-employee relations, with managers saying that they don't trust their employees to work outside the office and employees saying they don’t trust their managers to administer telework policy fairly, awarding the privilege based on favoritism or withholding it as punishment

With such animosity you'd think that the two sides would be happy to work farther apart from each other.

Oh, well, there's always next year.