Trying to measure the real return on investment for allowing federal employees to telework has inevitably involved a bit more art than science. Intuitively and anecdotally, it seems obvious that giving federal workers more flexibility to work remotely makes smart economic sense; and it goes a long way toward improving employee productivity and satisfaction too.

Yet after years of trying to implement telework policies in the federal government, it’s clear from the Office of Personnel Management‘s first comprehensive report to Congress on Telework, released July 6, that assembling reliable figures about telework implementation is still not an easy task.

The fact is, there are so many workplace variables, so many nuances in defining mobile and out-of-office work, that even the best intentioned managers find it hard to measure the degree to which telework is making a material difference at federal agencies.

Even OPM, in its efforts to cull the data for Congress, found that many agencies do not have the current systems capacity to collect all the requested data about telework. And in the absence of a standardized governmentwide data collection system or trained data collection staff in all agencies, OPM flatly stated “the final combined telework participation estimates are unlikely to be reliable.”

Nevertheless, OPM deserves credit for going beyond simply tallying up the number of teleworkers at federal agencies and trying to make what remains an unscientific assessment of the economic impact of telework on federal agencies.

The new 2012 report, in fact, provides an important glimpse of the benefits agency executives are starting to realize on a variety of management fronts from recruiting and retaining talent to reducing their real estate and energy costs.

For instance, the OPM report includes among a collection of findings this fact from the U.S. Office of Patent and Trademark Office:

“PTO fourth quarter FY 2011 telework data indicates that 2,322 employees teleworking five days per week translates to 28,647,675 miles reduced in a year and 15,040 tons of emissions reduced in a year; 1,142 employees teleworking four days per week translates to 11,271,540 commuter miles reduced in a year and 5,918 tons of emissions reduced in a year.”

Here is a sampling of other findings from the report that demonstrate how telework is in fact starting to make a material difference from an agency perspective, beginning on page 57 of OPM’s report:

Multiple agencies include telework in job announcements. Several have plans to conduct internal surveys and focus groups of new employees to determine telework’s impact on their decision to join the agency. Others mentioned using existing data sources such as the FEVS and other large scale surveys, while several agencies also reported that they do not know how to or do not currently have plans to measure this outcome.

U.S. Patent and Trademark Office: Patent examiners participating in a full-time telework program have a lower attrition rate (3 percent lower in FY2010) than the patent examiners not on a full-time telework program.

• National Transportation Safety Board: The agency hired back an employee by allowing him to telework full-time while finishing a graduate degree out-of-state.

Agencies reported using exit surveys, internal satisfaction surveys, internal focus groups, the FEVS, and anecdotal evidence to measure retention.

National Transportation Safety Board: The agency has been able to retain several employees in mission-critical positions that are difficult to backfill, who have relocated to other states for personal reasons by allowing them to telework on a full-time schedule.

• Farm Credit System Insurance Corporation (FCSIC): The FCSIC currently has one employee teleworking on a short-term basis due to a medical condition. Had this employee not been permitted to telework, she might have retired earlier than planned.

• PTO: The Trademark organization began its hoteling initiative in 2002, with the Trademark Work at Home (TWAH) hoteling program for Trademark examining attorneys. For the five years prior to the program, Trademarks had an average resignation rate of 9.62 percent. From 2006 to 2010, the most recent five years since the incorporation of the TWAH hoteling program, the average resignation rate was 3.03 percent. In a Trademark perception survey, 90 percent of hoteling respondents indicated the TWAH program has influenced them to stay.

Improved employee performance
Fewer methods of measurement were reported for this outcome, indicating that agencies are still considering ways to measure performance. A few agencies stated that telework requires a certain performance rating, acting as an incentive to increase performance either to maintain or gain access to telework. Others cited the FEVS, internal management surveys, employee satisfaction surveys, and focus groups as methods of progress towards this goal.

• Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB): In the Board’s internal telework survey, employees indicated they were more productive on the days they teleworked due to fewer interruptions and they tended to work longer because they did not have to spend time commuting. Employees must be rated at least “Fully Successful” to telework; employees who want to continue to telework are motivated to maintain good performance.

• Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC): The Telework Survey revealed that over 70 percent of our managers agree that teleworkers’ productivity increases or remains the same, and 80 percent of employees believe teleworking increases their productivity.

• PTO: In Fiscal Years 2009 and 2010, examiners participating in the Patent Hoteling Telework Program (PHP) worked, on average, approximately 14 more examination hours, including overtime, per year than non-PHP examiners. With the average PHP examiner having more examination hours than a non-PHP examiner, the resulting gain in productivity is approximately 5.7 full-time equivalents (FTEs,) which are the same as approximately six additional patent examiners working for a full year.

Improved employee attitudes/job satisfaction
Agencies most frequently reported comparing the results of the FEVS on employee attitude measures year-to -year. A few agencies mentioned their own internal employee satisfaction surveys, focus groups, and exit surveys.

• DNFSB: Prior to the 2011 FEVS, employee satisfaction with the Board’s telework program was extremely low. To address this problem, in the fall of 2010, management directed that core telework be piloted in the spring of 2011. Employee satisfaction with telework increased from 7.9 percent in 2010 to 55.3 percent in 2011.
• National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB): From the 2011 FEVS, 80.8 percent employees were either very satisfied or satisfied with the telework program, a 26.6 percent increase over the last few years.

Emergency preparedness
Many agencies described the role of telework in their emergency planning (e.g., as part of COOP, pandemic plans, encouraging unscheduled telework). Only a few described measurements for assessing this as an outcome. Common methods included tracking periodic exercises or tests, measuring numbers of log-ins to agency systems during tests or emergencies, and examining time and attendance records during emergencies. One agency used increases in telework agreements as evidence of emergency planning success.

• PTO: The existing telework program provides PTO with the ability to continue some everyday business operations during an emergency beyond those defined in the COOP plan. For example, during the February 2010, snowstorm closure, the Trademark Assistance Center continued to answer public inquiries with 91 percent answered in 20 seconds, which was better than the average performance for the previous quarter. The Trademark examining corps accomplished 85 percent of the production that they did in the same four days of the prior week even though the rest of the Government was shut down. Without telework and hoteling, the agency would have been completely unproductive during this time. In addition, while the Federal Government was closed for four full days, patent examining time was only down about 19 percent for the bi-week. The variety of flex work schedule programs and telework likely contributed to the PTO not losing closer to the full 40 percent patent examining time potentially lost during the four days of Government closures.

Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC): We plan to measure the use of telework for emergency preparedness through reports using NotiFind, WebTA (web­based time and attendance system), and/or our payroll provider’s reporting center (Datamart).

Reduced energy costs
Only three agencies (PTO, Farm Credit Administration, and National Council on Disability) reported measuring energy costs (via avoided office space needs). Agencies cited barriers to measurement, such as leasing their buildings or not having direct access to or control of their utility use data. A few have established working groups to study this and others cited energy use reductions as part of broader sustainability plans, but provided no metrics for measuring reductions.

• PTO: Given that we would have had to lease 1/3 of the campus – 2 more buildings (approximately 776,000 RSF) – were it not for Telework, we would likely have spent an additional (SIC) $2,4019,333 annually for electricity costs (based on the campus total for FY2011 Q3).

Avoided real estate costs
Several agencies described eliminating some office space as a result of telework, but few were able to translate this into dollar figures or square-footage of space saved. Several had established working groups to study real estate cost measurement. Several agencies were making strategic use of hoteling, office sharing, and unique floor designs to save space.

Department of Agriculture: Plans are underway to capture and collect data on individual eligibility as well as unique facility location identifier in an automated fashion. This capability will enable the Department to track and capture data on underutilized facilities that may house employees who are, in large part, able to telework. This data will enable the Department to make strategic decisions on closures or consolidation of office space based on the ability to increase telework.

• Department of Commerce: The agency is working to reduce space through a three part strategy: 1) identify consolidation opportunities; 2) look for reduction savings in expiring leases before new contracts are made; and 3) review all planned and existing leases for savings as well as eliminating any excess or underutilized owned space. Reduction savings can come from implementing three day or more per week telework, reducing space through open floor design, reduction of support space, and setting workstation size standard.

Department of Labor: The agency has been aggressively reducing its real estate requirements by reducing the work space footprint of individual workers and requiring that new space is built in a ration of 80 percent workstations and 20 percent private offices. “Hoteling” also is encouraged. The agency also seeks to consolidate bureau populations (minimizing travel time between office functions), and by providing more open, collaborative office designs. Lastly, a lease replacement/consolidation prospectus is being prepared that, if approved and developed, will make substantial use of hoteling and similar practices.

• General Services Administration: The agency uses space reconfiguration to provide enhanced hot-desking, hoteling, and desk sharing options.

Reduced commuter miles
Several agencies reporting that transportation subsidy costs decreased as a result of telework. A few reported collecting or planning to collect data from employees, without specifying which data they would collect. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative calculates commuter miles saved and compares year to year. The Department of State tracks miles saved by teleworkers using an online application that employees complete. The National Council on Disability reduced parking facility need. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights estimated commute miles saved from the number of full telework days.

• PTO: PTO fourth quarter FY 2011 telework data indicates that 2,322 employees teleworking five days per week translates to 28,647,675 miles reduced in a year and 15,040 tons of emissions reduced in a year. 1,142 employees teleworking four days per week translates to 11,271,540 commuter miles reduced in a year and 5,918 tons of emissions reduced in a year.

Department of Transportation (DOT): DOT is working to develop a “commute days avoided” metric, which will be comprised of a calculation of employees’ telework hours recorded in a time & attendance system and employees’ regular days off (RDO).

Lessons Learned

Gain Leadership Buy-In
Several participants agreed that gaining buy-in from leadership members at all levels is key to a successful telework program. Comments indicate that gaining leadership support can truly be the catalyst for effective implementation, and buy-in occurs when managers try it for themselves.

Involve Critical Functions
The importance of partnering early and often with union representatives and IT experts within agencies was mentioned as particularly instrumental to the success of telework programs. Involvement of all critical parties and functions will limit the number of unexpected surprises and is important for ensuring the effective collaborations necessary for long-term success.

Institute Reliable Data Collection
Participants also commented that instituting a reliable data collection or tracking procedure is critical to demonstrating telework success and as a tool for long-range planning and managing for program effectiveness. One participant commented, “As a whole, we need to have a better system for tracking telework. Providing data for the OPM Data Call is difficult for many who have to manually track telework participation.

Governmentwide, we need to make it easier to collect and report data.” Other participants noted that online application systems need to be comprehensive before going live to ensure seamless application. This is another area where partnership with IT and security experts is crucial.

Standardize Eligibility and Participation Criteria
Participants described the importance of standardizing eligibility decisions and notification. Some agencies notify their employees via mass email and/or during new employee orientation, while others prefer managers to send individual emails. Participants agreed that part of increasing trust in the telework process is to make sure that communications and notifications are handled fairly and according to established standards across an agency.

Measure Performance Accurately
Agencies reported facing challenges of performance management in advancing their telework program. Participants stressed the need for performance management systems to measure the outcome of completed tasks and goals. They agreed “managers want to know exactly what teleworkers are working on when out of the office”. It is critical for performance management systems to directly link to agency-wide performance plans.

Be Patient
Lastly, several participants emphasized the importance of remaining aware that change takes time and progress with telework requires patience. One participant suggested that one way to address this is to make sure that telework goals and objectives are clear and shared across an agency and that information about progress toward those goals is also shared on an ongoing basis.

As the OPM report makes clear, “Measuring telework program outcomes remains a work in progress, and it is too soon to clearly establish any particular practice as ‘best,'” the report nevertheless offers a fresh set of reasons in support of telework.