Telecommuting -- or teleworking as some prefer to call it these days -- is not an especially new concept, but few government agencies have widely embraced it. Why? Take an example from Scott Adams' comic strip "Dilbert." Dilbert -- videoconferencing from home -- sits in an old robe, with a five o'clock shadow, holding up a clean-shaven Dilbert puppet to the camera. All this effort is, of course, to hide the fact that he just rolled out of bed.
Adams' humor touches an element of reality about how many people perceive telecommuters' work habits. Many middle managers possess the point of view that a worker isn't performing on the job unless: (1) the person is working in the same place as the manager; and (2) the person's work is being done in the traditional, sit-at-your-desk-and-do-it format. It is this mindset that has prevented efforts to launch telecommuting programs across the country.
Today, however, cooperative deals are being proposed among federal, state, and local government agencies and private industry to bring employees together to work at telecenters and from home offices.
The idea is to have every level of the national work force cooperating to reach goals that include fostering a more family-friendly workplace, accommodating employees with disabilities, improving productivity and helping improve air quality and other environmental problems generated by commuter traffic.
In September 1992, Congress appropriated $5 million to the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) for the acquisition, lease, construction and equipping of telecommuting centers for use by federal employees in specific states. In 1993, Congress amended that legislation by increasing the funds to $6 million and expanded the territories involved.
Telecenters were established in Virginia and Maryland, including centers in Winchester, Hagerstown, Charles County and in Spotsylvania County. "We were not the first to do telecenters," said Warren Master, deputy director of Office Workplace Initiatives, GSA. "We went out and visited telecenter programs in Los Angeles, Olympia, Wash., and Seattle. We wanted to see what we could learn and what remained to be done so that we didn't repeat any mistakes.
"What we found is that three or four small telecenters aren't enough for organizations to have people work in a distributed manner. We discovered the best model has people working from home and using the centers to do things they can't do from home -- like send faxes, use videoconferencing facilities or use the center's T1 line to take better advantage of the Internet."
GSA has done intensive studies to find out whether or not the telecenters are working. In an interim report, called "Federal Interagency Telecommuting Centers," which is available at , the following results were cited: "The average daily round-trip commute to the principal worksite is 102 miles, with a range from 50 to 224 miles each day. On average, telecommuters use the centers 1.5 days a week and spend two hours and 40 minutes per day traveling to and from the office. With an estimated average commute to the telecenters of less than one-tenth the time and distance of the normal trip, each participant will reduce total distance traveled to and from work by more than 6,000 miles annually; and reduce total commuting time by close to four hours a week, or more than 160 hours a year."
In regard to how agencies benefit from the telecenters, the report is less quantitative and stated, "At this point in the pilot undertaking, there are no data on agency benefits. However, it is expected that through surveys and focus group feedback the project team will be in a position to quantify improved worker productivity. Another anticipated result is the potential for facility cost savings."
Even though the four federal centers are still under close scrutiny, GSA decided to step up the project to include state and local agencies who are able to
generate the necessary funds to maintain operations. This decision was made possible through the Intergovernmental Personnel Act, which is chartered through the Cooperative Administrative Support Unit (CASU) and operated by GSA. This allows agencies at different levels to cooperate and share resources at reduced costs.
"This program makes it possible for federal, state and local agencies to work together," said Jennifer Thomas, program director, Fredericksburg Regional Telecommuting Center. "This has a high utility value -- agencies can have access to government contracts that can provide goods and services at a lower rate. Say for example, you have a small federal field office and you've only procured enough office space for one or two people, or you need a place to have a large meeting with 20 people. Using CASU, you can get office space at a reduce rate or offer a meeting room free of charge to another agency."
CASU made it possible for government entities to share the same telecenters. The state, however, must procure its own funding. "Unlike the federal government, which has money appropriated for these projects, the state has to find money in its budget under some other items," said Mary Bray, manager of the Hagerstown Telecenter. "For example, there might be some money available through relevant state funding that could offset the cost of the space at the center."
Once the money has been allocated, an interagency agreement can be set up through GSA, which acts as the central billing center or middleman. According to Bray, the center sends a bill to GSA, which in turn bills the state. The state then pays GSA, and GSA pays the center.
The billing is, however, the simple part. Launching a telecommuting/ telecenter project can be fraught with complications. Master, however, emphasized that these challenges can be eliminated if interested state parties take the appropriate steps.
First, he advised agencies to make sure upper management knows about and okays the project. Once upper management approves, his next recommendation is to set up a pilot project with a built-in evaluation process, including a request to provide baseline data and participate in focus groups or periodic surveys.
"The pilot project should always be voluntary," said Bray. "Don't force an employee or supervisor to telecommute when they don't feel it's to their best advantage."
Thomas and Master both advocate the establishment of solid telecommuting policies covering how many days employees will telecommute or go to the telecenter, and how often they will check in with their supervisor via phone or e-mail. "A draft of a good policy should address fears and concerns of management, point out
all the positive aspects and address specific foreseeable problems and head them off before they happen," said Thomas. "And the policy should deal fairly with employees and
set forth an objective criteria establishing who will be allowed to telecommute. Make sure the chosen ones are trusted employees who have above-average performance and whose job is conducive to making a pilot program work.
"And absolutely work with the union if any of the employees are members," continued Thomas. "You're going to need union involvement right off the bat, and the union is going to have to be convinced that the program benefits employees. This is important since it's the union's job to protect and address employee concerns."
Master said that many agencies simply miss the boat because they don't bother to promote the program. "You have to market the concept or nobody will know it exists to get involved," he said. "You should consider holding telecommuting fairs, workshops, publish literature, etc."
According to Thomas, once employees are actually participating, it's important the agency recognize that they have to supply employees with the proper software for remote local area network access and provide
them with on-site technical support. "It's critical that technical support is available right from the start," said Thomas. "Employees must have immediate access to e-mail and electronic files. Thus, the agency needs a policy that stipulates who's going to pay for and provide the support in the field."
Master and Thomas agreed that with these actions in place, a successful telecommuting program will result. As an example, Bray cited the Department of Education -- which wasn't initially in favor of such a program. "They started out with three people doing it and today they have 350+ personnel either working from home or at alternative work sites and centers."
The success of the federal telecenters demonstrates that different levels of government can come together to improve worker productivity, reduce stress, improve morale and make the air easier to breathe. These efforts are just the beginning. "Fifty percent of workers in this country will be telecommuting to some degree by the year 2002," added Bray.
Michelle Gamble-Risley is the publisher and editor in chief of California Computer News. She can reached via e-mail at < email@example.com >.
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