When the workday starts at the Virginia Information Technologies Agency (VITA), some employees report to a new technology center 20 miles south of Richmond. But almost half of VITA's 400 workers just stay home - some once a week, some every day.

As a leader in a statewide effort to encourage more employees to work away from the office, VITA has seen the portion of its work force enrolled in its telework - aka telecommuting - program jump up to 49 percent from only 23 percent two years ago.

"Employees are pleased with it," Virginia CIO Lem Stewart said of the telework option. "I think productivity is better. And there isn't any question about the energy benefits." Employees who work from home save money on gasoline and help relieve pressure on Virginia's congested roads, he said. "So it provides a good all-around benefit for both employees and the agency."

Virginia made a major commitment to telework in 2006, when Gov. Timothy Kaine formed the Office of Telework Promotion and Broadband Assistance. The office encourages telework for public and private employers and is also working to bring broadband service - a must-have for teleworkers - to areas where it's not available today.

Telework is on the rise, not only in Virginia, but throughout the United States. A report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in May 2006 counted 20 million teleworkers in the labor force. WorldatWork, an association of human resource professionals, estimates 14.7 million Americans worked from home full time in 2006, up from 12.2 million in 2005.

Like Virginia, Arizona has institutionalized telework for government agencies. So has the U.S. government, which requires Cabinet-level departments to maintain telework policies. In fall 2007, officials at the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) underscored this federal commitment with a series of public appearances to promote the benefits of working away from the office: lower commuting costs, less time spent sitting in traffic, greater flexibility to balance work and personal life, and opportunities to accept jobs that aren't within easy commuting distance. 

For employers, telework offers a strategy for recruiting and retaining talent. That's a critical issue for government CIOs, as a 2007 survey by the National Association of State CIOs (NASCIO) pointed out. NASCIO found that among state IT organizations, 27 percent of the work force will be eligible to retire in the next five years.

Younger workers, who seek flexibility and a better quality of life, don't consider telework a luxury, said Karen Jackson, director of Virginia's Office of Telework Promotion and Broadband Assistance. "It's something they are looking for when they're considering what jobs they'll accept." The chance to telecommute might also entice veteran employees to stay on the job longer, she said.

In addition, telework expands the potential talent pool to include workers who don't live near a government facility. "It's really chasing the knowledge and the capabilities, rather than that plus the need to have somebody relocate," said Chris Cummiskey, CIO of Arizona and director of the state's Government Information Technology Agency (GITA).

 

Practice Makes Perfect

Telework also offers a way to keep government in business during a flu pandemic or other emergency. "If people, on a daily basis, are practicing, using, testing and learning how to do telework appropriately, then when the time comes for COOP [continuity of operations] and COG [continuity of government], we have an organization that knows how to do it," said Edward Meagher, deputy CIO at the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Proponents note that an organization with many teleworkers saves money because it needs less office space. It may also see increased productivity. Eliminate the exhausting commute, and employees might start work earlier or stick with it later. Keep them on their home turf, and they'll need just a couple of hours - not a whole vacation day - to see a doctor or meet with a child's teacher.

For government agencies that want to implement telework programs, one of the challenges comes from managers who feel they can't supervise employees they can't see. At VITA, Stewart tackled this problem by starting at the top, first requiring executive staff to telework at least one day a week. "That included myself. I do it a couple of days a week," he said.

He then mandated that middle managers start doing some of their work at home. That got them used to the idea, Stewart said. "They freed up a little in terms of allowing employees to do it."

A related challenge is that when employees work at home, it's harder to encourage collaboration, brainstorming and mentoring - interactions that often stimulate an organization's best work. "If you don't have that environment, how are you going to deliver goods and services?" asked William Mularie, CEO of the Telework Consortium, an organization funded by the U.S. Department of Commerce to help public agencies and private companies implement telework programs.

Video and conferencing capabilities can help in both areas, allowing supervisors and teleworkers to stay in touch, Mularie said. "If we could really push the quality of technology, then we could mitigate some of these management issues." For example, the Telework Consortium used a video-conferencing tool called Marratech to support collaboration during a pilot program with the Loudoun County, Va., government.

Officials in Arizona look to technologies of this kind to transform the state's existing telework program, which currently sends employees home to work just one day a week. With better tools, the state might create a full-fledged virtual office program, removing some groups of workers from government buildings entirely.

"If we want to move to a virtual office scenario, expand the telework or just be responsive to pandemic flu planning, then we need to make sure we've got the infrastructure in place to accomplish it," Cummiskey said. To this end, GITA has experimented with Web conferencing and is investigating enterprise imaging technologies, he said.

Although officials at the Department of the Interior encourage telework, the price tag for the required technology presents a major obstacle, Meagher said. According to a study by the GSA, he said it costs about $7,500 to set up a new telecommuter with a laptop computer, applications and security software, other office equipment, broadband communications, help desk support and other necessities. Ongoing costs total another $3,500 per year, he said. "Where does that money come from?"

In some government telework programs, such as Virginia's and Arizona's, many employees use their own equipment and pay for their own broadband when they work at home. That's especially true when the employee teleworks only one or two days a week. "We're certainly not overloading on the things that we give to them if it's a casual setup," Jackson said.

 

Avoid Obsolete Computers

Federal agencies often subsidize computers and broadband services for teleworking employees, said Mularie. Unfortunately some agencies have tried to save money by giving teleworkers obsolete computers that they've removed from government offices. That's the wrong strategy, he said. "You have to have more modern processors to do the work at home."

Besides figuring out how to support the costs of telework, a CIO must determine the right way to launch and maintain the program. "You have to pick the right jobs, and you have to pick the right people," said Rose Stanley, work/life practice leader and resident telework expert at WorldatWork in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Within an IT department, jobs that involve troubleshooting or monitoring equipment at a single facility clearly aren't good targets for telework. But employees who mainly do strategic planning and oversight, like many of GITA's employees, are prime candidates. "Once you have connectivity to the information you need, that really is a large part of it," Cummiskey said.

Field technicians also make good teleworkers, since they can be dispatched from anywhere, Stewart said. "It doesn't matter if they're at home or traveling."

 Another key to a successful telecommuting program is to make the ground rules clear. There should be a signed agreement, Stanley said. In federal telework programs, that's standard procedure. Arizona's telework policies stipulate not only that supervisors and teleworkers sign an agreement, but also attend telework training together.

A telework program also should provide a smooth way for teleworkers to transition between home office and central office. VITA did just that when it developed its new technology center. The building includes about two dozen "hoteling" facilities - shared spaces designed for use by employees who generally work at home. "During the days that they plan to be in the office, they schedule one of those facilities or offices to reside in," Stewart said.

To create a better atmosphere for telework, VITA also implemented new standards for evaluating employee performance.  They emphasize specific objectives and achievements, rather than subjective measurements, Stewart said. "It's a change from the standpoint of causing people really to focus on outcome, and not on where the individual is."

A successful telework program requires attention to both the technology side and the human side of the equation. The real secret, though, is treating telework as a serious business strategy. "You really have to focus on it as an initiative," Stewart said. "It's not something that you just say, 'Go do.'"

Merrill Douglas  |  Contributing Writer