Not Being There

Organizations - even Federal bureaucracies - are only information and people. The more information becomes mobile, the less people need to be. A December 2008 report...
by | October 26, 2009

Organizations - even Federal bureaucracies - are only information and people. The more information becomes mobile, the less people need to be. A December 2008 report to Congress on "The Status of Telework in the Federal Government" highlights the use of "telework" - also known as telecommuting or remote location work.

The report shows that more than 94,000 employees in federal agencies, about 7.6% of those eligible, now participate in telework programs, remotely working anywhere from three days a week to one or two days a month.

The report is issued by the Office of Personnel Management, and is based on a survey of federal agencies. Curiously, the report did not attempt to delve into the benefits of telework, noting:

Although the benefits of telework have become widely accepted - and widely assumed - few agencies are actually measuring outcomes for their telework programs. Most agencies do not collect information on the benefits realized from their telework programs. The greatest benefits reported by agencies that do collect this information were improved morale (32 percent), human capital (recruitment/retention, etc.) (29 percent), and, in a tie, productivity/performance and transportation (27 percent).

The greatest barriers to telework cited were the need for physical onsite presence, concerns regarding the handling of sensitive information, and impact on agency mission.

One of the most innovative participants came from within the Treasury Department.

Telework Innovator: The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA)

The TIGTA, with about 800 people in 73 offices nationwide, has saved money and improved morale by moving the information rather than the people.

In fact, the OPM report lists TIGTA as a "Sub-Agency Notable," with 85% of its employees teleworking, and 37% teleworking three or more days each week.

TIGTA has assigned its workers agency-owned laptops, and pays installation fees and half the monthly fees for high-speed internet lines, as reported in Federal Computer Week.

TIGTA went one step further and purchased video cameras for the telecommuting staff, and saved about $7,000 in travel cost avoidance in just one conference, according to a story in the Washington Post .

The video cameras create some group cohesion, because they provide a greater degree of personal interaction. "They provide a level of 'human bandwidth' that email and even teleconferencing don't," according to Larry A. Koskinen, the Associate Inspector General for Mission Support at TIGTA.

TIGTA is an "early adopter," if not a "radical innovator," in terms of Everett Rogers' theory of the diffusion of innovations. Those considering telework would do well to learn from their experience.

TIGTA did not leap into telework lightly. As long ago as 2000, TIGTA developed a new business model, designed its participant policies, trained a cadre of teleworkers, and began a six month pilot program, which ended with "a formal assessment that found a high level of participant satisfaction and a sustained quality of work," according to Joseph Hungate, TIGTA's CIO, in FEDTECH Magazine. Hungate also addresses challenges in management oversight and issues related to employee isolation: "To address these issues, management has placed greater emphasis on promoting proactive communication practices, setting clear goals with attainable deadlines, and encouraging peer interaction and collaboration on long-term projects through meetings, presentations and digital newsletters."

TIGTA's Koskinen sees the agency's embrace of telework as a major step towards becoming a virtual organization (see NSF's report on virtual organizations, Beyond Being There: A Blueprint for Advancing the Design, Development, and Evaluation of Virtual Organizations, May 2008). He adds, "Most organizations don't know how to say 'Yes' to collaboration opportunities because they don't know how to cost out what they do, or don't understand how to move money if they do understand."

Koskinen notes the benefits of TIGTA's use of telework and sees more to come: "The real value of telework is not just the work/life balance that it promotes. By creating the policy and technical framework to "tele-enable" all TIGTA employees we've been able to work with ourselves and our constituents at a level of responsiveness and productivity that was heretofore impossible. We see "mere telework" as a phase to go through in order to reach the tipping point on creating a much more nimble government organization. It's not just about working from home that matters--it's about working from anywhere with anyone at any time."

Those looking to boost efficiency and reduce costs through telework can look to the federal government and agencies such as TIGTA for examples of how to do it right.

Robert Knisely was a senior federal official and Deputy Director of Vice President Al Gore's Reinventing Government project. He blogs on the design of government at www.government-reform.info.

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