July 27, 2008 By Andy Opsahl
Surging gas prices are tightening belts and propelling state and local government green agendas. A mass exodus of baby boomers ready to retire is around the corner for agencies, while governments struggle to recruit the Generation X and Millennial employees demanding more flexible work environments than government's norm. These conditions make offering telework an attractive option for state and local agencies in Texas.
Programs in Fort Worth and Austin appear to demonstrate that telework is effective for jobs that don't require much interaction with co-workers or citizens. Also, a managerial focus on results rather than attendance is critical; the consensus appears to be that employees with concrete, result-oriented goals do well teleworking.
A common telework-related fear is that employees will flounder and become unproductive in the face of household distractions. However, the opposite may be true. Government employees in Texas frequently report increased productivity at home.
"When I'm in the office, I have phone calls. I have people coming into my office," said Betsi Chatham, senior GIS analyst of the Fort Worth Department of Environmental Management (DEM). "I have ad hoc requests that quite honestly, co-workers could e-mail me and ask me instead of coming into my office taking up 20 minutes of my time [as opposed to] a five-minute e-mail. I take advantage of not being distracted like I am at work. I get more done."
Many Texans say they notice little difference when their co-workers telework because they communicate almost exclusively via e-mail when everyone works in the office.
Janay Tieken, project development coordinator of the DEM, is one of Chatham's co-workers and can attest to that.
"There are some days when I don't know if Betsi's there in her office or not. We're just communicating as we always do," Tieken said.
As much as Chatham loves teleworking, she insists face-to-face communication is better suited for specific parts of her job.
"Staff members come to me with ideas, but their minds often aren't thinking spatially. Their minds think in terms of the tasks they need to complete. Face to face, based upon their body language, the way they're talking - maybe they're showing me stuff like graphics or databases - I get the gist of it a lot quicker than I would if I read a request at home," Chatham said.
She explained that when she doesn't talk in person first to the people who propose projects, she often has to spend extra time making adjustments.
Brian Boerner, director of the DEM, is open to expanding telework in Fort Worth where it makes sense.
"As you move forward, you're going to have to identify those jobs in the city where a person is important, but a place isn't," he said. "Think about a switchboard operator. Is it possible to image a call center so that basically you go into your home office and you log on and now you're at your city switchboard 311 system, and then you log off and you're back at home. The customer doesn't care who they get, just as long as somebody is there."
Telework in Fort Worth
In 1995, Fort Worth enacted its Employee Commuter Benefits Program that authorized managers to allow telecommuting on bad air quality days. Department heads allowed it sporadically, but the city lacked a formal set of procedures. By 2007, the DEM teamed with other agency representatives to create a formal policy. The DEM used recommendations posted on Telework.gov, a portal from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and the U.S. General Services Administration about federal telework practices, as a guide for Fort Worth.
The city ensured employees understood telework wasn't an entitlement.
"You don't have a right to telecommute," said Haily Summerford, public education program
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