Where telework isn’t working



“I may need one of those transparent overlays to track everybody,” she said.

Like Adams, many managers across government say they see the benefit of teleworking, but they question whether the effort to promote more teleworking is worth the trouble.

Telework is not the panacea everybody wants it to be,” said one senior manager at the Housing and Urban Development Department’s Chicago office.

At her office, the official said, teleworking is hurting the department‘s ability to provide services to the public.

Roughly half of the nearly 80 project managers that HUD employs to oversee public housing in its Midwest region telework three days a week. When tenants in HUD-managed properties call to discuss a building or to register complaints, their calls are directed to homes or telework sites where project managers are working, the HUD official said. But when people walk into HUD offices in the Midwest looking for help, they sometimes can’t find employees there who can help them. Those citizens are turned away and told to make an appointment, the manager said.

“The staff may have general knowledge, but there are some processes that require a project manager,” the HUD manager said. “If we’re here to serve the public, we have to have people here.”

She’s concerned about the message that an empty office sends to citizens who come seeking HUD’s help and services. “If you are economically deprived and living in subsidized housing, and the heat is off and you come to talk to someone about that, and the manager of the building’s not there, it’s clear what happens,” she said.

The manager said 39 percent of HUD’s roughly 400 employees in Illinois have teleworked about three days a week for the last three years.

HUD policy states that teleworking must not affect an office’s mission. HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan said it’s up to a manager to pull back if teleworking starts to hurt operations.

But it’s not that easy, the manager said. The American Federation of Government Employees has fought any effort to reduce or eliminate teleworking, she said.

“Once you approve it, you get locked into it,” she said. “It becomes an entitlement, not just something that can be done. I am so sorry we got involved in this; I don’t know what to do.”

One regional office the manager knows of has drawn criticism not only from AFGE, but from its own employees and even some of HUD’s senior leadership for trying to reduce teleworking. HUD needs to consider making employees who regularly deal with the public ineligible for telework, she said.

“Everybody cries foul — the employees, the unions,” she said. “You wind up spending your whole time fighting this issue and not getting anything done. It’s more trouble than it’s worth to fight.”

AFGE Local 911, which represents HUD employees in Chicago, Springfield, Ill., and Grand Rapids, Mich., said that complaint is “ridiculous.” Most HUD employees have little contact with the public, the union local said in a statement sent to Federal Times, and managers have enough power to terminate those arrangements if necessary.

Among the critics is the Government Accountability Office, which says the government has not been clear in spelling out its goals for teleworking.

“It’s still not clear what agencies hope to accomplish,” said Bernice Steinhardt, GAO’s director of strategic issues. “Whether it’s to improve morale, retention, recruitment, whether it’s to reduce commuting time or improve quality of life — none of those goals have been clearly articulated, and no one is looking to see if teleworking is accomplishing any of those.”

Teleworking should not be viewed as a perquisite, she said.

Proponents say teleworking will improve morale and retention, reduce traffic and pollution, save on commuting costs, and make the government more efficient.

Almost 110,600 federal employees teleworked in 2006, according to the latest report from the Office of Personnel Management. And that number is likely to grow in coming years. GSA wants more than 5,000 of its nearly 12,000 employees to telework at least once a week by the end of 2010. And the House in June passed a bill that would allow eligible employees to telework for at least 20 percent of their two-week pay periods.

Steinhardt said the Office of Personnel Management and the Chief Human Capital Officers Council should work together to set specific goals for teleworking.

She also said agencies should make sure managers receive enough training to properly oversee an office where employees regularly work from alternate locations.

“It would be helpful to managers if they knew what was expected of them, and what they were helping to do through teleworking,” Steinhardt said.

Federal Managers Association President Darryl Perkinson says teleworking can be a great tool for managers to use.
“Productivity can go up, because now you have folks who start to work when they’re supposed to, without the frustration of commuting,” Perkinson said. “That’s especially helpful in the D.C. area, where traffic is always backed up.”

Adams, who is usually in the office five days a week, is worried that she won’t always be able to make the schedule work, and that she’ll be the only one there on some days. When she’s alone, she usually spends all her time with GSA employees who walk in looking for help, and can’t spend any time doing her supervisory duties.

But she hasn’t yet come to a verdict on whether the government’s emphasis on telework is more trouble than it’s worth.

“Telework definitely has its place,” Adams said. “But we’re not in it deep enough for me to say whether or not it’s too much yet.”


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