The battle between the public and private sectors to attract top talent often boils down to workplace intangibles such as work/life balance. And few efforts to improve that balance have attracted more attention within the federal government than telework.

Permitting more federal employees to skip the commute and work from home isn’t just an act of good will to attract and retain employees. It also boils down to smart economics. The General Services Administration estimates that if federal workers telecommuted at least one day per week, federal agencies could increase productivity by more than $2.3 billion annually. Agencies could also save potentially billions more on office space, electricity and supplies.

Yet despite nearly a decade of initiatives supported by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management–and a renewed push by President Obama and an act of Congress last year –only 20 percent of the federal workforce report they are currently teleworking, according to a new national survey of 266,000 federal employees released by OPM.

Among that 20 percent, only four out of ten telework one or more days per week; almost half still said they telework very infrequently, on an unscheduled or short term basis.

The good news for many federal workers commuting in and around the Washington, D.C., region — now ranked as the nation’s worst for traffic congestion — is that there are more than a dozen agencies where half or more of their employees report they are teleworking to some extent:

Federal Employees Reporting They Telework – By Agency:
Governmentwide 20%
General Services Administration 78%
National Science Foundation 76%
Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. 74%
Office of Personnel Management 74%
Dept. of Education 69%
Securities and Exchange Commission 68%
Environmental Protection Agency 67%
Nuclear Regulatory Commission 63%
Federal Communications Commission 63%
National Credit Union Administration 59%
Federal Trade Commission 58%
NASA 57%
Dept. of Housing & Urban Development 51%
Dept. of Commerce 50%
Source: 2011 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey

“Work is what you do, not where you are.”- Martha Johnson, GSA

Moreover, because of a combination of events, telework may finally see the kind of traction long envisioned for federal workers.

Perhaps the most significant factor: Federal agencies have been directed to scale back their spending by as much as 10 percent in the next fiscal year compared to current budgets. That’s forcing agency executives to seriously reconsider their programs, their personnel and their office space requirements.

At the same time, government agencies, which historically required federal workers to use government-owned and certified equipment, are now growing more comfortable letting employees have remote, but secure, access to agency information networks, using the common mobile devices, desktop virtualization software and other technologies.

“Work is what you do, not where you are,” says GSA Administrator Martha Johnson. “We live in a mobile environment; work can be done from home, on the road, or in shared workspaces,” she said in a recent GSA blog post. “Telework initiatives improve productivity, cut down on turnover rates, and decrease employee absences. Additionally, telework reduces our costs and our impact on our environment by shrinking office space needs and reducing commute times,” she said.

GSA, which manages 350 million square feet of building space, is leading by example: The agency is in the midst of reconstructing its headquarters building. By embracing telework and by hoteling workers, GSA expects to have 4,700 Washington area employees be able to work in a space originally designed to accommodate only 2,400.

As compelling as telework’s promise may be, many employees say there are a variety of reasons why telework still doesn’t work. According to the just-released Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey:

  • 35% said they do not telework because they must be physically present on the job (e.g. law enforcement officers, park rangers, security personnel.)
  • 26% said they had not received approval even though they have the kind of jobs that could be performed remotely.
  • 12% said they choose not to telework (typically out of concern that being out of sight might handicap their chances for advancement.)
  • 7% said they do not telework because technical issues (such as connectivity, inadequate equipment) prevent them.

Those obstacles also factor into the fact that only 38 percent of federal employees found telework to be a satisfactory experience at their organization, the study found. That’s an improvement over the 35 percent who said they were satisfied last last year, but down from 2008 when 40 percent expressed satisfaction.

Still, with the savings potential too large to ignore, the White House and OPM are continuing to keep the pressure on federal agencies to get on the telework bandwagon.

OPM Director John Berry, in a memo to agency heads last year, reiterated an adminstration mandate that each agency designate an employee of the agency as the Telework Managing Officer (TMO) and that every agency had to:

1) Establish a policy authorizing eligible employees to telework
2) Determine the eligibility of all employees of the agency to participate in telework and notify employees of their eligibility status
3) Require a written telework agreement between employee and manager to ensure that telework does not diminish employee or agency performance
4) Provide an interactive telework training program, to be completed prior to the signing of the telework agreement, to employees eligible to participate in telework and their managers.