Keeping track of telework is about to get a lot easier for telework managing officers (TMOs) – and a lot more valuable.
The U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has worked with the Federal Shared Service Centers to automate the collection of telework data via the Enterprise Human Resources Integration (EHRI) HR and Payroll data feeds. OPM will begin piloting the automated method this fall, with an eye on mandating government-wide participation next year when agencies collect data for the 2014 Telework Report to Congress.
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Currently, TMOs from different agencies rely on their own uniquely designed, manual processes to try to keep tabs on telework activity. This approach, though, is time-consuming and has too much variation to provide completely accurate, reliable results, says Justin Johnson, deputy chief of staff for OPM.
“A lot of agencies count telework agreements, for example, but that doesn’t necessarily show real activity,” he explains. “Those agreements show that there are people who could be teleworking, but are they really opting to telework? It’s hard to know.”
The new method, created by adding new data elements to the official Federal payroll system, shifts the onus away from the TMO and onto the individual employee (and their manager), who must note the actual telework activity as it occurs when he or she fills out their weekly time-and-attendance card – just as they do now for other specific activities, such as when they indicate hours spent in official training.
“Right now, TMOs spend way too much time trying to count heads and provide accurate numbers for the annual report,” Johnson states. “If we can start to collect the information reliably from the employees themselves, then the TMOs can focus more on the strategic use of telework, which is their primary duty. And that means not just figuring out how to give more people the opportunity to telework, but how to drive outcomes like improved business continuity, reduced costs, and increased employee satisfaction.”
So how does the system work? When completing their regular timecards, each employee with a telework agreement will use one of two unique telework codes to indicate when and how they spent their remote work hours: one code is for routine, scheduled telework and the other is used to record any non-scheduled, situational telework hours.
As an example, consider the case of an employee who is scheduled to work remotely every Friday, but also has permission to telework on an as-needed basis. On their weekly timecard, they would note the eight hours they teleworked on Friday using the routine telework, code that reoccurs on the payroll. In the event there is a snowstorm over the weekend that made the Monday morning commute treacherous, the employee can decide to telework a half-day from home before going into the office. That person would indicate the second, situational telework code to show that she or he teleworked the first four hours on Monday and then worked four regular office-based hours.
The ability to distinguish between scheduled and situational telework is particularly valuable, says Johnson. At present TMOs have no real ability to understand when employees are taking advantage of remote work for unplanned reasons, such as in response to a natural disaster or opting to work at home to tackle an independent writing project. The new data collection method can help to sort out these circumstances and quantify the results. “We’ll have a lot more situational awareness,” he explains.
Once the payroll system has been updated to included telework codes, TMOs still will have to validate and verify the data, but they will no longer spend a significant amount of time focused on data collection. Rather, they will have sufficient time to perform more data analysis and strategic planning, says Johnson.
The new method will enable TMOs to assemble statistics based on geographic region and pay grade. The TMO might see that in one region, there seems to be a lot less telework activity, even though everyone in the agency is getting the same message and does the same basic work. This kind of analysis will help TMOs to focus on a specific region, “to figure out why they are lagging, and give them some assistance,” Johnson explains. “Or maybe some of the lower-grade employees are not teleworking as much as middle managers. The TMO can look into that and determine if there is a legitimate reason for the discrepancy or if the same opportunities are not being provided to varying levels of employees.”
This type of analysis will enable TMOs to do their jobs as envisioned, which is to figure out how to optimally leverage telework to achieve and maximize strategic outcomes, Johnson says. “It is not just that they will have more time to develop strategy and drive improvements, but they’ll actually have the data to help them do those things even more effectively.”
Federal agencies will have the opportunity to test drive the new automated, payroll-based telework tracking system this fall during the traditional “window of time” that is used to determine agency telework activity. However, they must simultaneously continue to collect telework data for the 2013 Telework Report using whatever manual process they have been using, according to Johnson.
By running the two data collection methods in parallel, however, TMOs and other subject matter experts will be able to more easily identify data discrepancies and system bugs. Further, employees will have the chance to get comfortable with the new system before its use is mandated in mid-2013.
“There is a cultural shift that will have to take place as employees and managers learn to record telework time accurately,” Johnson says. “Since we are already doing this with training hours, this will not require a huge change. We think it will take just this year to iron out any issues and get everyone comfortable with it.”