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Can Government Telework Like a Private Company?

Former Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy tells conference of government workers that “telework is what the world is about.”

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Count former Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy among the industry heavyweights who support telework in government workplaces.

McNealy, the company’s founder, voiced his support for mobile employment programs and said that Sun was an early adopter of the strategy. McNealy’s comments came Thursday, Sept. 22, at a teleworking conference attended by local, state and federal government workers.

Sun’s telework activities have reaped benefits, he said. Employees spend less time commuting, saving an average of 2.5 weeks of work time annually. McNealy shared that an internal company survey in June 2008 found that 82 percent of the company’s employees said they’d recommend Sun to others because of its flexible and innovative work environment.

McNealy said employees shouldn’t be densely packed in walled environments all the time. When McNealy led Sun, he said he’d walk building halls on weekdays, and sometimes there’d only be 15 percent occupancy because people were elsewhere doing their jobs.

“Telework is what the world is about,” he said.

According to McNealy, employees are more comfortable when they work away from managers’ watchful gazes. But they still want goals and direction in their duties. “People do not like to be managed. They love to be led,” he said.

McNealy did recognize one of the main barriers to telework, a concern that’s no stranger to government offices: It’s difficult for managers to monitor employee work performance if they can’t see them in the desk two feet away.

This lack of trust was also mentioned by California Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren of Silicon Valley, another speaker at the Work Anywhere Symposium 2011.  Employers worry about the productivity of teleworking employees, she said, but a Booz Allen Hamilton study has dispelled that notion. “They found the productivity of teleworkers increased by an hour a day,” Lofgren said, without naming the specific study.

Lofgren echoed McNealy’s laundry list of benefits realized from telework, including less traffic congestion and a better work-life balance. She added one more potential benefit: The public sector can’t compete with the private sector when it comes to the salaries it can offer to job applicants, so teleworking may lure people to government work with the promise of more flexibility and freedom.

“Telework has started to gain traction in the public sector,” she said. Technological advances, like wireless capability and the mobile tech explosion, make it easy to deploy now, Lofgren asserted.

In December, the federal government enacted the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010, which makes executive-level employees eligible for telework opportunities — one indicator that telework may be catching on in government.

But there also have been setbacks, Lofgren said. The General Services Administration has partnered with other organizations, including universities, to offer telework centers in Washington, D.C., but they didn’t work out and have been shut down. The telework centers were designed to be hubs for remote workers to come in to complete remote work instead of at home.

And security of remote data and connections is a concern. “One of the challenges we have is maintaining data security in the telework system,” Lofgren said.