Telework: The Great Debate

The presidential candidates' first debate may have been in question for awhile. But afficionados of dispute need not fear. We have one brewing right here involving readers responding to our recent posting about telework (See below).

Let's be dramatic and think of it as a sort of talking version of the Sweet Science. In one corner we have Total Believer, a true supporter of telework. In the other corner we have Skepticus, who is, well, skeptical that American taxpayers will get their money's worth from government employees who work at home.

We'll let Skepticus strike first:

"The requirements are strictly technical (hardware, software, training), and pretty sketchy at that. I've yet to hear anyone in government -- on the Hill or in the agencies -- use the term ROI in association with telework. That's return-on-investment, i.e., bang for taxpayer bucks. It's simply assumed that telework is a good thing, like apple pie and motherhood. If it makes us look "green" and makes employees happy, well then that's all the justification we need. Never mind that Fortune 500's who do this make certain the ROI is on the plus side, and that business goals will be better served, before OK'ing programs like this. That's all beside the point in Fedworld."

Now Total Believer:

"As a person who has teleworked for NIH for more than a year I must say I get more done on my telework days than other days because I'm less tired, less stressed and less interrupted by everything from the building being pulled down next door to people chatting outside my door. Our department was down 70% due to promotions and retirements and people who just could not make their commute and job work this year. I literally could not have done all I did to do the work of several other people if I had not been able to work from home. My institute is expanding telework to 2 days a week I think because to their surprise it was working or possibly because they couldn't keep people without it. Additionally, there is a learning curve for dealing with the technology and they want us to be able to work from home if its impossible to get to work due to weather, disaster, terrorism or epidemic. People have to actually work at home so they'll know how to work at home when the really need to work at home.

"The reality in the Washington region is that traffic is insane and people don't necessarily live near where they work and couples may live one place and work in 2 different states. I live in Virginia and my husband's job is here but I work 49 miles away in Rockville. When I'm gone its for 11 1/2 hours minimum each day and I use a tank of gas every 3-4 days and pay someone to let my dog out. Telework is saving me quite a bit of money and wear and tear on my car each week which is good since the government is not exactly dolling out the bonuses despite the fact that it has a hiring shortage and it also does not offer private sector parity.

"I know its convenient to regard bureaucrats as lazy but we get virtually no perks compared to people in other walks of life and believe or not many of us are responsible people commited to our Agency's mission. Lots of folks would be in big trouble without us believe it or not and with a huge number of feds about to retire and no incentive to join the workforce its a darned good thing some agencies are thinking about telework."

The first round is over. Judges?

By Robert O'Harrow |  September 26, 2008; 2:14 PM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

I also telework 1 day a week and I can say that I get a lot more done when I can concentrate at home. At work coworkers are always stopping by to talk about the latest new headlines or the game on TV last night, it seems that I have to keep stopping what i'm doing and be polite and nood my head as their talking, but wach time it stops me from working, and then it takes time to reengage where I left off. There are always retirement ceremonies, promotions, telecons, and meaningless meetings that eat away at the actual time I'm doing work.

Atleast with telework i can focus for 8 hours without any interuptions. I accomplish in 8 hours from home, what it takes me 3 days to accomplish in the office.

Posted by: Bob | September 26, 2008 2:51 PM

I am the President & CEO of The Telework Coalition, a nonprofit here in DC that advocates telework and telework in all of its various forms from working at home to working from hotels, trains, coffee shops, airports, etc.

When "Skepticus" speaks of the ROI he is bring up one of the key differences in teleworking in Fedworld compared to the private sector. We refer to the benefits and advantages as the "triple bottom line" - good for employers, employees and society in general. The private sector gets to take advantage of all three, Fedworld about 2.8.
Employers in the private sector will realize the following:
*Reduced real estate needs and costs
*Reduced corporate energy consumption and related costs
*Increased employee productivity – averaging 22%
*Reduced employee turnover
*Reduced costs relating to absenteeism – up to 63%
*Better employee morale and motivation
*Increased customer satisfaction
*Ability to hire from geographically dispersed areas
*Business Continuity (COOP) and Disaster Avoidance program
*More opportunities to do business with other organizations that have made a commitment to being “green”.

Fedworld doesn't really see much out of the first and last but the others are sector unspecific.

by the way, all employees will:
*Save on commuting expenses such as:
- Gas consumption
- Parking expenses
- Less wear and tear on the vehicle
- Possible lower auto insurance rates
- Lower dry cleaning expenses
- Meals purchased while at work
- Dog walking services (inserted for "Total Believer")
* Improved work/life balance
* Less stress

We all benefit from:
*Reduced traffic congestion
*Reduced impact on the transportation infrastructure
*Reduction in greenhouse gases
*Improved air quality
*Less dependency on imported oil
*Expanded employment opportunities for older and disabled workers
*Economic development through greater job availability in rural areas
*Keeping more jobs from going offshore

Telework is good for many of the things that ail us - individually and collectively - not all of them and it's not for everyone or every organization, but compared to most other solutions it's relatively easy to implement, costs less, and can be implemented in much less time.

Posted by: Chuck Wilsker | September 26, 2008 5:04 PM

I commend your interest in Telework. I do it all the time and can tell you that I am much more productive. Not only have I ( and many of my colleagues) been able to avoid long lines of snarled traffic inherent in the daily commute, but I know for a fact that GSA is now much better at emergency management and continuity of operations because we practice those concepts all the time. Telework has helped my office and all of GSA get better. I think you will find that the missing ingredient to a more effective Telework strategy around DC is that senior leaders have not yet bought into it. Fortunately, the past GSA administrator Lurita Doan took up that cause and pushed it with real enthusiasm from the top. That made all the difference, for prior to that, Telework had always been just another of the many different half hearted programs launched tepid support from management. As other agencies begin to see the gains GSA has gotten from Telework, I would expect more to follow our example.

Posted by: andy | September 28, 2008 1:02 PM

Just wanted to say I agree with the last poster -- that you can get a lot of concentrated
Work done teleworking due to less interruptions. It's quiet and people have contact with
You by phone, e-mail, or videoconferencing, etc. It's benefits the employer with greater
Productivity because workers aren't worn out from commuting, they don't have as many
Interruptions, and they are happier because they actually have time to catch their kids
At a game or activity when they get off of work (instead of driving an hour or more).

Government talks about it a lot and tells companies to offer this to their employers, but doesn't
Offer it in a big way to federal workers. This really does need to change given our traffic congestion,
the environment, energy and other issues. It's just crazy having everyone come downtown every
day when you don't have to. And government could save $$ on rent, energy, etc.

Posted by: Peggy | September 29, 2008 5:12 PM

I'm back and would also like to say our institute invested in training for managers and staff on making telework work. Before this year managers could not telework and it seemed to cause alot of resistance to the idea of letting employees do it. Manager now can telework and see the benefits. We all have a plan are responsive and accountable and have established ways to handle things like power interruptions, emergencies at home, sudden meetings etc...This can allieviate some of the concerns shared by Skepticus and the like.

Posted by: Total Believer | September 29, 2008 10:04 PM

Just to clarify: I never said telework doesn't offer great potential for all the good things Mr. Wilsker notes. For the record, I'm a home-based consultant myself and in a previous life allowed/encouraged my employees to work wherever and whenever they'd be most productive. My point is simply that the discussion in Fedworld is ONLY about making employees happy and saving the environment. I have yet to hear anyone on the Hill or at GSA or OPM mention the taxpayer in all of this, i.e., highlighting the ways in which telework will improve productivity, reduce overhead costs, lower attrition, etc. Anecdotes from happy individual Feds don't necessarily add up to an effective program, unless of course we believe the purpose of the Federal government is simply to make its employees happy. How about including some measurement of ROI in the DHS pilot, or other programs like it? And stop thinking of telework as solely or even primarily an employee benefit. It's not -- it's a management tool, to help achieve organizational objectives.

Posted by: Skepticus | September 30, 2008 12:02 PM

one additional telework ROI is the fact that I, and I suspect many others are busy at work earlier and working later...hours previously spent travelling to and from are now productive "on duty" hours.

Posted by: pete | October 1, 2008 9:47 AM

Before I retired I worked at home the majority of the time. I got at least twice as much done because of fewer interruptions, starting work earlier and working later by eliminating "getting ready" for work and travel/traffic time. On days at home I was always available via phone or email. For the record, happy employees are generally more productive and willing to stay where in a job where their quality of work-life is considered. The environment is an issue for all Americans and one that should be in the forefront of business decisions. Additionally, if scheduled properly overhead costs can be reduced significantly as fewer in-office resources are required for the same number of employees. Tele-work has proven to be a viable option when handled properly and should be expanded to the extent possible.

Posted by: shari | October 2, 2008 2:21 PM

Telework is a strategy that is underutilized and definitely misunderstood. Business, either public or private sector, needs to treat it as a tool, not a benefit (although to many it seems to be) and not everyone is suited to telework, for a variety of reasons. I wanted to add one more benefit that we promote: teleworkers also lend a sense of security in neighborhoods, where most people are out during the weekday (at work, of course!), teleworkers have the ability to "keep an eye" on the area in case of crime, fire, etc.

Posted by: Sandi | October 3, 2008 3:46 PM

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