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Summary:

The Telework Enhancement Act is designed to increase telework opportunities for federal employees. Agencies are now winding up the process of complying with its requirements. What lessons do their efforts hold for businesses interested in starting their own web work programs?

Telework Enhancement Act and business

Last year President Obama signed the Telework Enhancement Act into law, requiring all government agencies to determine which employees are eligible to telecommute and to develop policies and processes to allow them to do so. Now the June 9 deadline set by the Act is fast approaching, and agencies are winding up the process of complying with its requirements. What lessons do their efforts hold for businesses interested in starting, expanding or improving their own web work programs?

To find out, we spoke with cloud computing expert and CEO of InfoStreet Siamak Farah, who explained that the experiences of the government will definitely — if not immediately — change the environment and expectations faced by the private sector, offering four takeaways for businesses:

  • Determining eligibility is tougher than it seems. It’s a rare occasion when the government blazes a trail for the business community, but this might be one such case, with agencies figuring out how to best implement distance working. The first step, according to Farah, is to overcome fears of appearing discriminatory and take a long, hard look at who really can telecommute.  “You really need to look at the job function,” says Farah. “Not all people are created equal when it comes to teleworking. If you’re a heart surgeon, you’re not doing it,” he says. While Farah’s example may make determining eligibility sound simple, the government’s experience shows this is actually one of the tougher aspects of implementing web work and an important foundation for a successful telework program.
  • The security advantages of the cloud are under-appreciated. While fear of hackers and online security abounds (often for good reason), many times the greater threat is simple human fallibility – just look at the U.K. government’s struggles to get employees to stop leaving secret info on trains. “When everything is in the centralized cloud … there are no files on a physical laptop which could get lost or hacked into,” points out Farah, who notes that storing data in the cloud will allow for innovations like fingerprint log-ons and offers often-undervalued security benefits. The cloud might not be up to CIA-level security, but for most functions, current data protection measures in the cloud should suffice, says Farah.
  • Worker expectations are changing. Companies have long held back on telecommuting because they worry about not being able to monitor employees’ productivity. But that objection is eroding, according to Farah, due to the amalgamation of work and life. “It used to be that you punched in at nine and you went home at five and left every single worry at work. But now with iPhones, BlackBerry [devices], iPads and email accessible everywhere, many times personal time is being interrupted for work because that’s what the work requires. The natural progression of that is that employees come back and say, ‘Hey listen, if my time at home belongs to you than how come my time at work doesn’t belong to my house?’” Businesses will need to respond to this demand for quid pro quo.
  • Government demand is changing cloud offerings … for the better. This process “is going to increase the number and quality of cloud solutions so businesses have more choices,” concludes Farah.

Image courtesy Flickr user deryckh

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  1. Michael Shear Tuesday, May 24, 2011

    The Problem – For more than a decade, the agencies and departments of the federal government have been unable to meet the requirements of congressional legislation regarding the number of federal employees that telework. Compliance has been below 15 percent of congressional objectives. There is no enforcement or consequence to these failures. However, we do continue to pay the price by way of increasing transportation congestion, air pollution and gasoline consumption while reducing our competitiveness in creating new employment opportunities. Without a dramatic change in the way we approach remote working, the price will grow dramatically and soon include data breaches, cyber security failures, reduced emergency preparedness and ineffective continuity of operations planning efforts.
    There are a number of reasons cited for unfortunate telework performance and current legislation and initiatives reflect beliefs that only perseverance is required in order to achieve better results. Unfortunately, the disappointing telework achievement may not be just a matter of ‘trying harder’; rather, it might be a matter of examining alternative approaches and trying something different. Given the magnitude of the problems we face, teleworking as currently practiced does not work for enough of the people, enough of the time; it is inequitable; it lacks predictability; and insistence on rapid expansion in the federal workforce will require additional support and will introduce dramatically heightened security risks.
    Another serious apprehension with the federal government’s telework current methods is the open testimony by heads of agencies and departments of its use as a key element in continuity of operations planning. Given the actual daily deployment of less than 2 percent of the federal workforce, unanticipated emergencies (unlike snow day predictions) in all likelihood will require ‘evacuation’ as a first level of response. The ‘hope’ in these cases is that federal employees will successfully arrive home, have commercial power, integrous internet services and will plug in their laptops to continue working.
    It is time to have a thoughtful discussion on alternative approaches.

  2. A major part of the problem here revolves around the fact that private and public sector organizations have had a strong tendency to view this as an all or none proposition > employees either “work from a conventional office” or they “work from home”. The real challenge comes in when you realize that these two work arrangements only cover the requirements of 50% of today’s knowledge based workforce.

    We have to broaden our focus and move beyond the overly simplistic “on / off”, “in / out” models and design our work environment to match the range of work styles exhibited by the 21st century workforce. Think about how you would best support a “road warrior” that moves across customer, partner and supplier sites. How does that compare to the technologies and workplaces that you would put in place to support an “individual contributor” who does mostly heads-down work requiring extended periods of concentration? What about the internal service provider that moves across company locations? Each of these work styles is best supported by a distinct set of technology, workspace and organizational enablers.

    The trick shot involves objectively figuring out who falls into what camp and giving them the tools and support they require to best perform their job. If you manage this appropriately there are massive benefits for the organization, for the employees, and even for the communities where they live / work.

  3. A major part of the problem here revolves around the fact that private and public sector organizations have had a strong tendency to view this as an all or none proposition > employees either “work from a conventional office” or they “work from home”. The real challenge comes in when you realize that these two work arrangements only cover the requirements of 50% of today’s knowledge based workforce.

    We have to broaden our focus and move beyond the overly simplistic “on / off”, “in / out” models and design our work environment to match the range of work styles exhibited by the 21st century workforce. Think about how you would best support a “road warrior” that moves across customer, partner and supplier sites. How does that compare to the technologies and workplaces that you would put in place to support an “individual contributor” who does mostly heads-down work requiring extended periods of concentration? What about the internal service provider that moves across company locations? Each of these work styles is best supported by a distinct set of technology, workspace and organizational enablers.

    The trick shot involves objectively figuring out who falls into what camp and giving them the tools and support they require to best perform their job. If you manage this appropriately there are massive benefits for the organization, for the employees, and even for the communities where they live / work.

  4. What the federal government and other organizations have also realized is that telework is already happening. Real estate studies show that on average 50% of an organizations desks go unused every day.
    Providing staff a work life balance is part of the reason, but reducing real estate and occupancy expenses as well as reducing carbon emissions are other huge benefits the government is expecting.

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