In Texas, there are five health and human services (HHS) agencies — the Department of State Health Services, the Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services, the Department of Aging and Disability Services, the Department of Family and Protective Services, and the Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC), the administrative head of all five. In total, HHS employs 54,000 people and takes a bite out of 32 percent of the state’s budget.

With that many people, the agency leaves a large office space footprint. In September 2011, now-outgoing HHS Executive Commissioner Tom Suehs created a workgroup to determine whether allowing more employees to work virtually — that is, from home or somewhere else outside the office — could increase job efficiencies and reduce costs. Earlier this summer, the workgroup, which included supervisors of current virtual workers, returned its findings to Suehs and identified the risks, challenges and benefits for mobile workers and teleworkers.

I asked Suehs about HHS’ current virtual worker policies and what benefits the five agencies could realize from a virtual worker expansion. His edited responses appear below.

What is the agency’s current telework policy?

The Texas health and human services agencies have telework policies to address specific issues at their agency. Any HHS agency employee may apply for telework. The request is then evaluated by the supervisor and, if approved, reviewed by the supervisor’s supervisor. Final approval comes from the agency commissioner. HHS policy requires the employee and their supervisor to sign a telework agreement that details expectations (for example, work hours) and performance standards. We have the ability to stop telework for staff who aren’t performing.

Mobile workers, on the other hand, have job responsibilities that require them to be out of the office; this includes facility inspectors, child protective services workers and health inspectors. Requirements for such staff are embedded in their job descriptions. As mobile workers become equipped with technology and no longer need to come into the office on a regular basis to do things like enter data or meet with supervisors, it’s been recommended that HHS establish appropriate HR policy. This is now in progress.

How many HHS employees currently telework or are mobile workers?

As of December 2011, there were 425 teleworkers across all five HHS agencies in every region of the state. Sixty-eight percent of these staff telework only one day a week, while about 15 percent telework full time. Our teleworkers are diverse in terms of their occupations. Of course, staff who provide direct services to residents of our state hospitals and state-supported living centers won’t be approved for telework. But beyond that, there’s a wide range of jobs that may be performed from home — even if just one day a week.

On the mobile work side, close to 2,000 staff are currently technologically equipped to operate independently of dedicated office space. Eighty percent of these are child protective services workers, with most of the others doing regulatory work.

What benefits would HHS realize if more employees worked remotely?

The workgroup reported a number of positive results for teleworking and mobile working including reduced absenteeism, increased retention, recruitment of skilled staff, cost savings, enhanced customer service, improved work/life balance, a boost in morale, enhanced capacity in such things as business continuity and disaster recovery, and access to work for workers with disabilities.

I also think there’s plenty of productivity to be gained and we’re working to quantify this. For example, a mobile worker who’s able to cut down on the number of trips to the office because they’re technology enabled is a productivity gain. A staff member who eliminates a two-hour commute by teleworking may decide not to look for a job closer to home, and that’s a productivity gain. And being able to attract and retain the next generation of workers — young people who see work as what you do and not where you’re located -- that will be a productivity gain.

What initiatives are you working on now to understand how telework and mobile work can benefit HHS?

On the telework side, one of our agencies implemented a small pilot program a couple of years ago that offered staff the opportunity to work from home for one regularly scheduled day a week. The positive reaction of staff and continuing quality of work resulted in an expansion across the agency and now about 150 staff telework from home at least one day per week. A significant piece of the pilot was very good training that was developed — one geared for staff, the other for supervisors — that we’re adapting for use across all HHS agencies.

In April 2012, we started a pilot project with our own agency’s Customer Care Center staff in Athens, Texas. These workers process eligibility changes that are part of a client’s case record. Since those case records are electronic, staff can work on any case, no matter the location. We have about 40 of these staff members working from home. Our preliminary findings indicate that telework has a positive effect on employee morale, can reduce turnover as well as absenteeism and can be an effective recruiting tool. Based on these positive results, we’re planning to expand telework across the five other Customer Care Centers, involving about 500 staff, by the end of 2012. We’re also looking at other areas that are conducive to teleworking within HHSC’s eligibility services division.

Heather Kerrigan  |  GOVERNING contributor

Heather Kerrigan is the author of GOVERNING's Public Workforce newsletter. Prior to joining GOVERNING in 2006, she worked in the Office of Congressman Ron Kind of Wisconsin.