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Telework Far from Being Embraced
Experts say convincing leadership, reluctant workers is critical to expanding telework

By Greg Wright  10/11/2012
 
 

When the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) asked its employees to try teleworking, Arlene Ashton was firmly against it. The suburban Clinton, Md., resident wanted to keep her office life separate from her home life.

Now, however, Ashton, who is an equal employment specialist, proudly says she has become one of the biggest cheerleaders for telework at USDA.

A few days a week, Ashton can avoid Washington, D.C.’s notorious rush-hour traffic, start work as early as 6 a.m., finish with clients by 2:30 p.m., and still have time to make a doctor or dentist appointment.

“They encouraged everyone to try it, and, once I tried it, I said, ‘Man, this is great,’ ” said Ashton, who attended the Fall 2012 Telework Exchange Town Hall Meeting in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 25.

Telework Declines

Although U.S. Census Bureau figures reflect that the number of people who work at least one day a week from home increased in the past decade, a report from Dieringer Research Group Inc.[WU1]  and WorldatWork reveals that the number of people who telework has declined in recent years. That’s largely because of the recession, and a belief among many workers that being in the office where bosses can see them is crucial to job security, the report states.

The Dieringer study points to the number of employees working from home or remotely for an entire day at least once a month. That figure was 26.2 million in 2010. Prior to that, the number of teleworkers had risen steadily to a high of 33.7 million in 2008, about double the number in 2000, the report stated. Figures were not available for 2011-2012.

According to a recent study conducted by the Telework Exchange, companies that allow teleworking may not be using the technology to its fullest advantage. About 76 percent of federal workers interviewed said their agencies are not using videoconferencing as much as they could. Videoconferencing can be a key tool in allowing employees to telework from home or work remotely from nonoffice locations, experts said.

“Collaboration tools, like video conferencing, allow co-workers to come together visually, but without lengthy travel or large amounts of time away from one’s work station,” said Cindy Auten, general manager at the Telework Exchange. 

Join the Telework Movement

Experts who spoke at the town hall offered several tips that HR professionals can use to persuade their companies to begin or expand telework:

Involve management. It is essential that top management gets onboard and sets policy for a telework program, but employees should also demand it, Auten said. “I see it coming from all angles,” she explained. U.S. Deputy Secretary of Transportation John Porcari agreed, saying that a company’s leadership must be fully invested in telework to make it work. “It’s a question of sustained focus, and you need a champion for it,” he said.

Promote the rewards. Promote telework as a tool to enhance employee performance—not merely as an employee benefit, said Wade Hannum, director of performance and work/life policy at the U.S. General Services Administration. “We actually see some people who perform better when they are not in the traditional workplace,” Hannum said. Experts add that the option for telework should be given to all eligible employees in order to avoid disharmony.

Tout work/life balance. Persuade leadership that telework improves quality of life for employees and reduces the amount of leave they take, said William Milton Jr., who is deputy director, Office of Human Resources Management, Departmental Management, at USDA.

Take a slow approach. Don’t try to jump into the telework pool all at once. Dip your toes in first to test the temperature. Start in departments where telework is easier to do and it makes the best strategic sense, said Justin Johnson, deputy chief of staff at the Office of Personnel Management.

Tie it to performance. Companies that adopt teleworking should include telework goals in managers’ performance plans to let them know leadership is serious about adopting telework, Porcari said. “Make sure supervisors know that element of the performance plan will be evaluated—that it is something that will be monitored.”

Publicize cost and talent benefits. Demonstrate how your company can spend less money through teleworking, but be careful not to exaggerate the savings, Porcari said. Also set clear goals for what you hope your company or agency will achieve through telework, Johnson added.

Telework also has advantages when companies consider plans for working during natural disasters or other instances where offices may be closed, but work must continue. Porcari said the Department of Transportation held a test in March 2012, when a record 61 percent of that agency’s 55,000 staffers worked remotely. “In short, it worked,” he said. “The airplanes still flew. The ships still sailed. The trains continued to run on time.”

According to Jeri Buchholz, chief human capital officer at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), teleworking is a way to attract and keep talented and technically savvy workers who grew up with mobile technology and won’t work without it. “We need to focus on the future workplace environment and the future workplace culture,” she said.

Although the recession has caused fewer people to telework or work remotely, as the economy improves, telework will see a resurgence, said Rose Stanley, a work/life practice leader at WorldatWork.

She added that technological advances and changes in our culture’s growing acceptance of workplace mobility have made it easier for teleworking to expand.

“We are going to see much more potential for an increase in virtual work,” Stanley said.

Greg Wright is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer who has covered Congress, consumer electronics and international trade for major news organizations, including Gannett News Service/USA Today, Dow Jones and Knight-Ridder Financial News. He can be reached at GLW522@gmail.com.

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