Survey: Telework still underused in government

Percentage of government agencies offering support for telework and government workers who are eligible for telework is down, according to CDW-G survey

About eight years after the U.S. Congress passed a law requiring federal agencies to allow telecommuting, just 17 percent of federal employees do so, according to a survey released Monday.

U.S. government agencies are ahead of private industry in the United States, where only 14 percent of workers telework, said the survey by CDW-G, a government-focused IT vendor. However, 76 percent of private-sector respondents said their companies offer support for teleworkers, up from 49 percent in 2007, while 56 percent of U.S. government workers said their agencies offer support, down from 58 percent in 2007.

In addition, fewer government workers said they were eligible for telework. Forty percent of U.S. government workers said they were eligible to telework in the 2008 survey, compared to 52 percent in 2007, and 56 percent in 2006.

In many cases, U.S. agencies seem to be tightening their telework policies in response to security concerns, said Firooz Ghanbarzadeh, director of technology services and solutions at CDW-G's parent company, CDW. Recent pressure from members of Congress on security issues may make agencies leery of telework, he said.

Security and telework "might seem conflicting, but really, it's not," Ghanbarzadeh said. "It's up to the IT [department] to figure out how they can do that and not compromise the security."

A law passed by Congress in 2000 requires federal agencies to create plans where eligible employees "may participate in telecommuting to the maximum extent possible without diminished employee performance."

CDW-G has been doing telework surveys since 2005. In a 2007 survey, CDW-G said that 43 percent of government respondents indicated they telecommuted at least occasionally. But CDW-G asked the question in a different way this year, defining telework as doing a job during regular work hours from home or another location away from the employer's primary work locations.

The number of government employees who said they telework for this year's CDW-G survey is similar to the 20 percent who said they telecommuted in a Telework Exchange survey released in February.

One encouraging part of the survey is that business support for teleworking has increased, Ghanbarzadeh said. "The private sector is finally realizing the benefits," he said. "It's been disappointing for the last few years."

Telework supporters say it would have several benefits. It would keep more drivers off clogged roads in the Washington, D.C., area, and it would decrease air pollution, supporters say. In addition, 50 percent of the government respondents in the new CDW-G survey said the ability to telework would influence their decision to stay in their current jobs or find new ones.

On the downside, many U.S. agencies still don't have written policies in place governing teleworking employees, Ghanbarzadeh said. Sixty-eight percent of U.S. government workers said their agencies had telework policies, compared to 62 percent in 2007.

CDW's policy is that computer users cannot physically connect to any outside network, but many places don't have such a policy, he said. "In the absence of that, there's a lot of room for ambiguity, and then the security concerns happen," Ghanbarzadeh added.

The survey, conducted in February and March, questioned 550 U.S. government employees and an additional 273 federal IT workers. The survey also questioned nearly 1,000 private-sector employees.