US gov't telecommuters hit roadblocks

Resistance from managers seen as holding some agencies back

Even as some U.S. government agencies embrace telecommuting as a way to keep operating during emergencies, significant resistance from managers holds some agencies back, telecommuting experts said Tuesday.

For government agencies to fully see telecommuting as a benefit, top managers need an attitude change, said Wendell Joice, head of the U.S. General Services Administration's (GSA's) government-wide telework team.

"We are hampered by constantly having to beg and plead," said Joice, speaking at a conference focused on improving telework acceptance among government agencies.

Advocates of telework say it can provide government agencies and private companies several benefits, including a way to remotely continue operations during a national disaster or terrorist attack. Telecommuting can also ease the Washington, D.C., area's legendary traffic problems, reduce pollution, and increase worker productivity, advocates say.

But some government managers seem unconvinced about the benefits and about their ability to supervise teleworkers, said James Lewis, senior fellow and director of the Technology and Public Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Ongoing cybersecurity concerns about telecommuting can be fixed with the right equipment and software, said representatives of RSA Security Inc., a cybersecurity vendor, and iPass Inc., a wireless security vendor.

But studies showing real-estate-related cost savings through telework may not apply to government agencies, which have to give excess funding back to the federal general budget, and some managers will question studies suggesting teleworkers are more productive, Lewis said.

"I don't want to dismiss the managers who have concerns here," Lewis said. "What do we need to do to make them happy?"

In May, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report saying only nine of 23 agencies surveyed reported they had plans in place for essential workers to telecommute, GAO said. Only one agency has told its emergency team members about telework expectations during a disaster, GAO said.

Under legislation passed by the U.S. Congress in 2000, federal agencies are required to offer telecommuting as an option to eligible employees, but Congress can't force agencies to speed up their plans, said J.T. Griffin, legislative aide to Representative Frank Wolf, a Virginia Republican and telework advocate.

Many agencies haven't provided adequate telework training for employees and managers, and don't want to pay for home office supplies, said one audience member who identified herself as an agency telework coordinator.

Her agency resisted when she recently tried to submit office expenses after working from home following sick leave, the woman said. "I don't ask them to pay for my computer," she said. "I don't ask them to pay for my broadband connection. How about some paper and toner?"

Embracing telework doesn't have to be hard, said Jack Penkoske, director of manpower, personnel and security at the U.S. Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA). Under military base realignment plans, DISA would move its headquarters 28 miles (45 kilometers) from northern Virginia to Fort Meade in Maryland in the next five to six years, but DISA would still move toward more teleworking without the move, he said.

The 28 miles "might as well be across the country" considering rush-hour traffic between northern Virginia and suburban Maryland, Penkoske said. DISA is expanding its telecommuting options to accommodate employees living in Virginia, but also as a way to recruit new workers.

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