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Teleworking in Texas

The Lone Star State's health and human services agencies are looking to boost their virtual workforce, hoping to increase productivity and save money.

In Texas, there are five health and human services (HHS) agencies -- the Department of State Health Services, the Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services, the Department of Aging and Disability Services, the Department of Family and Protective Services, and the Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC), the administrative head of all five. In total, HHS employs 54,000 people and takes a bite out of 32 percent of the state’s budget.

With that many people, the agency leaves a large office space footprint. In September 2011, now-outgoing HHS Executive Commissioner Tom Suehs created a workgroup to determine whether allowing more employees to work virtually -- that is, from home or somewhere else outside the office -- could increase job efficiencies and reduce costs. Earlier this summer, the workgroup, which included supervisors of current virtual workers, returned its findings to Suehs and identified the risks, challenges and benefits for mobile workers and teleworkers.

I asked Suehs about HHS’ current virtual worker policies and what benefits the five agencies could realize from a virtual worker expansion. His edited responses appear below.

What is the agency’s current telework policy?

The Texas health and human services agencies have telework policies to address specific issues at their agency. Any HHS agency employee may apply for telework. The request is then evaluated by the supervisor and, if approved, reviewed by the supervisor’s supervisor. Final approval comes from the agency commissioner. HHS policy requires the employee and their supervisor to sign a telework agreement that details expectations (for example, work hours) and performance standards. We have the ability to stop telework for staff who aren’t performing.

Mobile workers, on the other hand, have job responsibilities that require them to be out of the office; this includes facility inspectors, child protective services workers and health inspectors. Requirements for such staff are embedded in their job descriptions. As mobile workers become equipped with technology and no longer need to come into the office on a regular basis to do things like enter data or meet with supervisors, it’s been recommended that HHS establish appropriate HR policy. This is now in progress.

How many HHS employees currently telework or are mobile workers?

As of December 2011, there were 425 teleworkers across all five HHS agencies in every region of the state. Sixty-eight percent of these staff telework only one day a week, while about 15 percent telework full time. Our teleworkers are diverse in terms of their occupations. Of course, staff who provide direct services to residents of our state hospitals and state-supported living centers won’t be approved for telework. But beyond that, there’s a wide range of jobs that may be performed from home -- even if just one day a week.

On the mobile work side, close to 2,000 staff are currently technologically equipped to operate independently of dedicated office space. Eighty percent of these are child protective services workers, with most of the others doing regulatory work. 

What benefits would HHS realize if more employees worked remotely?

The workgroup reported a number of positive results for teleworking and mobile working including reduced absenteeism, increased retention, recruitment of skilled staff, cost savings, enhanced customer service, improved work/life balance, a boost in morale, enhanced capacity in such things as business continuity and disaster recovery, and access to work for workers with disabilities. 

I also think there’s plenty of productivity to be gained and we’re working to quantify this. For example, a mobile worker who’s able to cut down on the number of trips to the office because they’re technology enabled is a productivity gain. A staff member who eliminates a two-hour commute by teleworking may decide not to look for a job closer to home, and that’s a productivity gain. And being able to attract and retain the next generation of workers -- young people who see work as what you do and not where you’re located -- that will be a productivity gain.

What initiatives are you working on now to understand how telework and mobile work can benefit HHS?

On the telework side, one of our agencies implemented a small pilot program a couple of years ago that offered staff the opportunity to work from home for one regularly scheduled day a week. The positive reaction of staff and continuing quality of work resulted in an expansion across the agency and now about 150 staff telework from home at least one day per week. A significant piece of the pilot was very good training that was developed -- one geared for staff, the other for supervisors -- that we’re adapting for use across all HHS agencies.

In April 2012, we started a pilot project with our own agency’s Customer Care Center staff in Athens, Texas. These workers process eligibility changes that are part of a client’s case record. Since those case records are electronic, staff can work on any case, no matter the location. We have about 40 of these staff members working from home. Our preliminary findings indicate that telework has a positive effect on employee morale, can reduce turnover as well as absenteeism and can be an effective recruiting tool. Based on these positive results, we’re planning to expand telework across the five other Customer Care Centers, involving about 500 staff, by the end of 2012. We’re also looking at other areas that are conducive to teleworking within HHSC’s eligibility services division.

Our protective services agency runs a call center that takes reports of abuse or neglect. It’s open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. The agency is using a phased approach that will eventually have 75 percent of the agency’s 427 staff teleworking full time by Jan. 1, 2015. The agency expects having more teleworkers to improve workload coverage, better manage business continuity events, reduce real estate footprint, and provide cost-savings and flexibility benefits to staff.

On the mobile side, our agency responsible for health regulation has for several years had about 60 of its inspectors equipped with technology that frees them from needing dedicated office space. We’re now working to get a better understanding of mobile work’s return on investment by quantifying the benefits of this mobility through the implementation of a mobile milk and dairy inspection pilot project.

Several years ago, the Texas Legislature provided funding for our protective services agency to purchase tablet PCs for its workers. This allowed them to document their investigative notes in the field -- the same day or the day after they made a visit -- and has increased job efficiency and freed up more time for direct work with clients. The agency now has over 1,700 mobile caseworkers, and based on the positive results from use of the tablets, it’s created a strategic plan with the goal of having 100 percent of its 6,000 caseworkers mobile. The new plan is titled GoMobile and will help reduce travel costs and our office footprint.

In considering an expansion of virtual work for HHS, how much do you anticipate saving? What costs will be involved?

We do not yet have good enough data to construct a return on investment for adopting the virtual workforce business model where it makes sense to do so. What is clear is that, given the success of many other organizations -- private and public -- in adopting a virtual workforce business model, the responsible thing to do is to make sure we have a better understanding of what the potential benefits are to HHS agencies and what the associated costs are, and that we provide that information to the governor and the Legislature for use in their deliberations of funding for our agencies.

I’ve established a governance body of agency chief operating officers to oversee the effort. Over the next few months, they’ll be working to help get more precise information on the costs and benefits of expanding the virtual work business model for HHS agencies.

What reaction have you received from employees to the idea of telework?

Two-thirds of the employees responding to our annual Survey of Employee Engagement this year supported telework.

On the mobile work side, our experience suggests that staff like the flexibility of mobility. But of course, there are still staff around like me who might find it difficult to operate in a mobile work environment. But our sense is that the emerging workforce will have little difficulty being mobile. The world is changing. Just 10 years ago, who had a smart phone? Today, who doesn’t?

What will happen to the plans for more virtual workers when you retire at the end of the month?

When I leave August 31, there will be no “telework plan” in place. What will be in place are 1) the policy, training, research and experience to effectively support virtual work across all HHS agencies; and 2) a process to get better information about virtual work -- its benefits and savings, its upfront and continuing technology costs -- that can help the governor and legislators understand the value of these tools as they deal with funding issues for the HHS agencies.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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