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Washington Tapping Into Telework for More Flexibility

November 19, 2010
Related Topics: Telecommuting, Retention, Featured Article, HR & Business Administration

Credit last December’s brutal winter for melting away Congress’ previously icy stance toward telework for federal employees.

That season, blizzards dumped a record 6 feet of snow on Washington, D.C., shuttering U.S. government agencies for four days and costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars in lost productivity.

While a small percentage of federal employees authorized to work from home or living outside the D.C. area were able to take up some of the slack for snowed-in colleagues, their efforts could barely make a dent in the backlog.

Congress apparently got the message. The House on Nov. 18 approved the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 in a bipartisan vote of 254 to 152 following its unanimous passage in the Senate in September.

Based on the experience of some federal employees, telecommuting seems long overdue. “Telework has a tremendous impact on employee morale because they no longer have to get in their cars and drive an hour or more to work every day,” says Danette Campbell, senior adviser for telework with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Washington, which has had a telecommuting program in place for 13 years.

“Plus, it’s an important tool for attracting a younger generation of employees who expect that flexibility and greater sense of control over their lives,” she says.

Research certainly supports the contention that younger workers want more flexibility in their work arrangements. In a recent survey of employees born between 1980 and 2001, working from home ranked 10th (14.3 percent) on a list of important factors candidates look for when selecting a job. Telecommuting even ranked higher than providing better job security (7.9 percent) in the survey by New York-based Deloitte Consulting.

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Other studies indicate that telecommuting appeals to older workers as well. A 2009 survey of 1,400 chief financial officers conducted by Menlo Park, California-based Robert Half International Inc. found that 33 percent consider telecommuting the main draw for new hires of any age.

“The federal government is 30 years behind the needs of the workforce,” says Michael Gelles, a director at Deloitte Consulting in Washington. “It must attract and retain Gen Yers—digital natives who function effortlessly in a virtual world—if it expects to evolve into an effective workplace.”

Campbell, whose agency has 5,654 telecommuters, up from 18 in 1997, says the primary benefit is productivity. “An employee may have a cold that’s bad enough to stop him from coming into the office, but not bad enough to stop him from working at home,” she says. The U.S. patent office boasts a productivity jump of 10 percent since implementing its telework program.

Telecommuting also makes good financial sense from a real estate standpoint. According to Deloitte, the average facility cost per employee in the federal government is as much as $15,000, yet up to 40 percent of workspaces are vacant on any given day. Telecommuting already has saved the U.S. patent office some $11 million in office space expenditures.

The Obama administration intends to build on that small start. It wants federal agencies to eliminate $8 billion in real estate costs and put 150,000 employees on telework schedules by 2012.

“The message is clear: You can’t meet 21st century challenges with 20th century bureaucracy,” Gelles says. “We need a networked federal workforce that prizes collaboration and agility, not hierarchy.”

Workforce Management, November 2010, p. 10 -- Subscribe Now!

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