Tiny DoD office earns only federal award for workplace flexibility

Monday - 8/19/2013, 5:25am EDT

When the William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies furloughed its workforce this summer, its staff felt the pain of a 20 percent pay cut just like the rest of the Defense Department's civilians. But the tiny DoD agency says it was able to avert some of the huge productivity losses other parts of the Pentagon felt during the six weeks of partial downtime because of a flexible work plan it already had in place.

The Perry Center, a field activity of the Office of the Secretary of Defense housed at Washington's National Defense University is one of 300 nationwide organizations to earn this year's Alfred P. Sloan Award for workplace flexibility from the When Work Works initiative, a joint project of the Society for Human Resources Management and the Families and Work Institute (Coincidentally, Federal News Radio and its sister station, WTOP, also were winners).

"We have very high employee retention levels," said Jeff Murphy, the Perry Center's management services chief. "They recognize that while a lot of what's happening to the federal workforce is simply out of our control and we can't do anything about it, the management here has taken proactive measures to say, 'OK, we can control some of these things, we can take some positive steps, so let's go ahead and do those.'"

Murphy said the small office of about 50 full-time employees has a range of flexibility initiatives in place, including telework for most employees — all of whom are issued laptops — job-sharing and compressed work schedules. It also allows employees take part in what the Office of Personnel Management terms "maxiflex," which lets workers pack an 80 hour, two-week pay period into a fewer number of longer days that the employee can select.

"So during the furlough period, where our normal 80 hours of work was curtailed to 64 hours, the use of maxiflex helped us meet mission requirements because we were able to have employees work a longer day to meet the mission," he said. "If they were teaching a course and the course took eight hours a day, plus a couple hours of reading or a couple of hours of distance learning, they were able to accomplish the mission in a way that was still supportive of their work life and their home life."

Murphy acknowledged his organization has built-in workplace flexibility advantages that other corners of the Defense Department don't enjoy simply by their nature. The Perry Center's mission is to educate civilian governmental leaders in Latin America about military affairs and the vast majority of its work is unclassified, so letting employees take their work home with them is generally not a big deal. And the nature of the work most of the Perry Center's employees do is naturally suited to telework, he said.

Nonetheless, he said he faced many of the same challenges other agencies have experienced when he first began to set up telework programs — some managers don't believe their employees are actually working unless they're in the office and subject to direct supervision.

"It's something you have to fight against, and there was initial resistance. Most managers are used to seeing their employees every single day, but there are also plenty of organizations within the government, like the Patent and Trademark Office that have been wildly successful in shifting a great number of employees to telework," he said. "It boils down to manager-employee trust, as well as training supervisors that there are tasks that they can have their employees do that are away from the physical worksite. It's an added benefit to the employee and an added benefit to the employer. It reduces our office space usage, it reduces the need for parking, and it's great for employee morale."

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