Technology no longer a barrier to telework, experts say

Thursday - 5/3/2012, 6:21am EDT

Peter Tseronis, chief technology officer at the Energy Department, was the first speaker to utter the word "Snowmageddon" at Wednesday's Focus on Telework Town Hall Meeting.

The massive snowstorm that paralyzed the D.C. region in February 2010 has become a touchstone for advocates of telework for the federal workforce, many of whom were in attendance at the conference sponsored by the Telework Exchange.

Ten months after Snowmageddon, President Barack Obama signed the Telework Enhancement Act into law.

A year-and-a-half later, Tseronis and his fellow panelists say they are optimistic about the state of technology in supporting mobility and telework.

Peter Tseronis, CIO, Energy Department

"The good news is that the technology you need to support telework is here today," said Rick Engle, principal Windows technologies specialist at Microsoft. "The big issue is making sure you understand whether you want to support a secondary device and what the acceptable risks are for those. But the technology to allow you to be on a disconnected office and continue to stay productive as you go forward in your day is there. The harder thing is determining policies, what the rules are, what employees need to opt in for. I think we're in a great state right now."

Casey Coleman, the chief information officer for the General Services Administration, agreed. "The issue is programmatically from a security and compliance framework, making all that work for the federal government," she said.

Beyond that, Coleman envisions a point where teleworking will become so common place, people won't even talk about it anymore.

"We very rarely talk about the Internet as being something extraordinary," she said. "It is a utility that is essential to everything we do. I think mobility and the tools and technologies that support it are becoming just as knit into our work. I think that's a very positive development."

Measuring telework's return on investment

"The Act provides a framework for agencies to better leverage technology and better maximize the use of flexible work arrangements, which will aid in the recruiting of new federal workers, retain valuable talent and allow the federal government to maintain productivity in various situations, including those involving national security and other emergency, " said Tseronis.

Another way for agencies to measure their return on investment is increased productivity, which can stem from developing effective telework and mobile strategies.

"Some of the more obvious ones are moving from outdated systems that are run in-house to cloud-based and mobile solutions," Coleman said. GSA, for example, is in the process of moving its email system to the cloud, which over the agency's five-year investment would cut costs by 50 percent.

"But that's small potatoes compared to larger ways that you can measure return on investment, which include employee productivity, reduction in transit costs, and reduction in carbon footprint," Coleman said. "Even more hard dollar savings, in GSA's case, [is a] reduction of real estate necessary to house our federal workforce in the D.C. area."

Once GSA finishes renovations to its headquarters at 1800 F St., 4,000 employees will operate from 2,000 workspaces via an hoteling mechanism that allows employees to book a workspace as needed.

"We're going to consolidate office space from about five different campuses to one," Coleman said. "By doing that, the investment in the IT and the mobility and the strategies that support that kind of a workforce will pay off in terms of our needing significantly less real estate."

She added that sometimes the business case needs to be a bit broader than just the IT return on investment.

"It's what's the programmatic ROI," Coleman said. "In our case, real estate is a big part of the cost savings we're expecting to glean from this move."

Panelist Robert Brown, assistant chief of staff/G6 for the Marine Corps Recruiting Command, touted the benefits that increased mobility has created in terms of the work/life balance of Marine recruiters.

"What this mobility piece has allowed a lot of these to do is not to spend so much time on the road," Brown said. "They've got long hours trying to find recruits out there. So by being able to connect at the Starbucks or wherever or home networks and actually do their work, get their files, do what they have to do and then get back out on the road, has been huge."

The number one thing Brown has heard over the last year is how much time recruiters have been able to spend with their families since they can now access their files remotely.

Putting the Telework Enhancement Act into practice

"The problem is, when you want people to be always having the ability to get access to their data and their services, you need to figure out the standards and which is going to be possible," said Engle.

Casey Coleman, CIO, General Services Administration

During the 2011 earthquake, when cellular systems were overloaded, employees couldn't text, make phone calls or get on data networks. "In that case, if you've got a thin connection, you're not going to have access to your data," Engle said. "You need to be able to build resiliency into your applications solutions so you can work in a disconnected state. You have to have solutions for that."

One of the solutions that Microsoft provides, for example, is applications virtualization software, which enables an agency or business to stream its applications down to a device that can then be worked on offline.

"You need to be flexible in terms of connectivity," Engle said.

Since Snowmeggedon, the region has endured additional emergency situations — an earthquake and flooding from Hurricane Irene — that closed offices for periods of time and demonstrated the need for a more mobile workforce.

In implementing the Telework Act, the Office of Personnel Management laid the groundwork for agencies to establish effective telework programs with three objectives, Tseronis said:

  • Improve continuity of operations by using telework as a strategy to keep agencies open during emergencies and inclement weather.

  • Promote management effectiveness by using telework to reduce costs associated with employee absenteeism and turnover, real estate space and transit.

  • Enchance work/life experience by allowing employees to balance their work and family obligations in a better manner, thereby creating a more resilient workforce.

"That, if you haven't read it, is the essence of the Act itself," Tseronis said. "Actually utilizing this law is significant."

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