Government sector teleworking has in principle
taken a big step forward in the United States, with
the passing into law of the Telework Enhancement
When President Obama signed the Act, he placed on
all Federal Government Agencies a requirement to:
- establish telework policies
- decide the eligibility of all employees in
agencies to telework
- notify all employees of their eligibility
- set up interactive telework training
- appoint a senior official to be a Telework
- set annual targets for increasing the uptake
- report on telework progress, in terms of
- numbers of people who telework and how
- measured impacts on: emergency readiness,
energy use, recruitment and retention,
performance, productivity, and employee
In addition, the Act also:
- sets out some generic criteria for
deciding eligibility, both in terms of type
of work and performance issues
- states the necessity for having written
agreements about the specific work
- specifies equal treatment for
teleworkers and non-teleworkers in terms of
appraisals, training, rewards, retention,
work requirements and handling by managers
- requires the Office of Personnel
Management to provide policy and guidance in
the areas of pay, leave, recruitment,
performance management, official workplaces
and accommodations for employees with
- requires the General Services
Administration to issue policy and guidance
on telework in relation to telework centres,
travel reduction, technology and dependent
- requires other agencies to develop
policies and procedures for information
security for teleworking and for business
A clear message from the top
From an outside perspective, it is
curious that work organisation in government
needs a change in law to make it happen.
However, it has the great advantage of
making a clear statement that 'This Is
What Is Going To Happen'. It is fully
authorised from the very top, and no one can
pretend to be in ignorance of the policy
All agencies have 120 days to comply with the
requirements, so there is a message that
heel-dragging is out. And the requirement to
set targets and clear metrics is a clear sign of
intent. Few change programmes succeed without
top level endorsement.
And what are the benefits?
The Act provides a structured and well
thought-out framework for pushing telework forward.
And the reporting framework shows that there are
some clear ideas of the benefits it is hoped to
A key driver, though not so explicit in the Act
itself, is to shrink the size and costs of
government real estate. This was brought up by
members supporting the progress of the bill.
The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that
implementing telework will cost $30 million over
five years, but it will save many times this amount
over the longer term. In fact it has been
estimated that in the recent snow storms teleworking
is saving $30 million per day in productivity that
is not being lost.
Supporters of the bill pointed to private sector
organisations that have saved large amounts of money
from telework, such as IBM who report saving $56
million annually from telework.
However, Republican critics of the Act note that
the final version of the Bill that was passed lost
the requirement for agencies to demonstrate that
their programmes do actually save money.
The government does expect to reap benefits in
terms of business continuity, improved productivity
and performance, reduced energy use, improved
retention and reduced travel. How much will
depend on the level of uptake, and we can expect in
the future detailed annual calculations of the
Will it work?
There have been pushes for teleworking in the US
government before, but official reports and
individual complaints have shown both a lack of
uptake and in some cases management obstruction.
This time, though it looks like there should be a
stronger institutional effort.
However, implementing change in any large
organisation can be a slow process, not least in
government. Some critics have pointed out that the
measures risk increasing bureaucracy through the
specified reporting and accountability processes.
As with all such measures, it depends how they do
it. The change has to be genuine, and probably
the biggest challenge will be overcoming the
traditional culture of government and traditional
mindsets, habits and assumptions about where, when
and how work should be done.
Despite the good intentions, there are grounds
for concern about the approach specified in the Act.
Firstly, while saying that all employees in
principle could be eligible, the exceptions and a
lack of clarity about who decides could leave
the decision in the hands of line managers who just
want to stick to the old ways.
Exceptions to teleworking are people whose
official duties require them on a daily basis to
handle classified materials directly, or who
undertake on-site activity that cannot be handled
remotely or at an alternative work site. While
this is intended to apply to specific roles, e.g.
forest rangers, teachers, spies, potential
Wikileakers, etc, these could be easily interpreted
to cover a wider range of roles. And effective
planning for remote work involves also looking at
how tasks can be unpacked and repackaged in
different bundles in order to cut down on
unnecessary travel and office space.
Secondly, there is no clear approach to
workspace apparent. We all know that
governments need to make huge savings and property
is part of that. And telework will have
significant spatial impacts. So what do you do
hack at the office? The office needs to be
transformed into flexible work environments that are
built for collaboration and the kinds of specialist
work that require an office location - not ranks of
desks and acres of storage.
Thirdly, the approach to performance implies
that the office is still the normal and default
place to work. So telework is still
presented as a kind of revocable privilege, rather
than a natural place to work.
In relation to performance and discipline, it is
specified teleworkers should not be people who are
known to have downloaded pornography, including
child pornography, onto government computers.
This shows certain prejudices and assumptions about
what teleworkers might do in the Internet Age.
It seems bizarre and a little out of touch to
specify certain kinds of unacceptable or illegal
activity and not others. I guess a track
record of gambling and money laundering, or
exchanging fraternal greetings on jihadist websites
and signing up for bomb-making webinars is within
There are two points here. One is that you don't
want timewasters and criminals working for you at
all, in the office or beyond it. The second is
the assumption that performance issues necessarily
have to be brought into line of sight in order to be
remedied. And the embedded assumption here is
that the manager will always be in the office to do
Fourthly, teleworking or remote working is only
one aspect of flexible working. The Act
does not seemed to be joined up in any strategic way
to separate initiatives on work-life balance
that incorporate other flexible working options (Read
more). These too have an impact on all the
proposed metrics, and need to be incorporated into a
unified strategy for working smarter.
Where's the strategy?
But probably the biggest weakness is, as the
critics have pointed out, the lack of a
requirement for achieving savings and for financial
reporting - for creating a business case for
change and having the means to both deliver it and
to evaluate whether you have succeeded in saving
money. There are clearly some crucial missing
At the end of the day there is a structure,
and there are some proposed generic benefits.
But there is no clear vision about the future shape
of government working practices, and no actual
strategy as yet to deliver quantified benefits
within a defined timescale.
So at the moment, it's a case of: 'Allow
telework, and some good things will happen.
Monitor the results, and hopefully more good things
will happen'. For the Act to work, this now
needs to turn into a series of robust programmes for
driving through change.