Telework Seen as Solution to Many Challenges
By John Grill
On the front page…
What do the problems of gridlock traffic, limited space, unpredictable weather and air pollution have in common? For NIH, they might have the same solution: telework. Managers across the agency have found that enabling employees to work remotely has benefited not only telecommuters, but also their organizations.
“Telework and other alternative work arrangements are the wave of the future,” said Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “We have actually been able to downsize office space while saving many employees the expense, time and headaches brought on by daily long commutes.”
Worsening traffic alone might make skeptics give telework a second look. The already over-capacity intersections around NIH are about to get even busier during rush-hour as Walter Reed Army Medical Center moves to the National Naval Medical Center property just across the street. The Office of Research Facilities estimates that the relocation will add 2,500 more commuters each day and up to half a million new outpatient visitors each year.
Further compounding traffic woes, road improvements to cope with the influx will not even begin until well after September 2011, the scheduled completion date for the Walter Reed move. Even when construction is completed, the improvements are only expected to keep traffic similar to its current state, not produce long-term improvement. With no other solution to the growing traffic problem, many ICs are looking to telework.
Telework has the potential to have a substantial impact, as shown by the Center for Scientific Review’s success. A full 85 percent of CSR’s eligible employees have active telework agreements, with 41.2 percent teleworking 2 or more days a week.
|“The President made it clear…he doesn’t want snow, nature or any other cause to be able to stop our government.”
Traffic under normal conditions can be bad enough, but emergencies such as last winter’s historic snowstorms can bring telework-resistant agencies to a halt. “The President made it clear to me that he doesn’t want snow, nature or any other cause to be able to stop our government,” said Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry at the Fall 2010 Telework Exchange town hall meeting. “Since OPM doesn’t control the weather or the plows, telework is the only way to achieve the goal that the President very clearly set.”
This has been borne out in practice at NIH offices such as NCI’s Technology Transfer Center, which handles patent applications and other time-sensitive legal documents. “Legal deadlines do not wait for the weather,” explains Dr. Patrick Twomey, a TTC unit coordinator and supervisor of teleworking employees. TTC’s ability to operate remotely allowed it to continue operations during the snowstorms. The Office of Human Resources was also able to perform critical functions that most take for granted; teleworking OHR employees ensured that payroll for all NIH employees were processed despite region-wide office closures. Telework preparations also paid off for CSR, which did not miss a single study section meeting during the snowstorms.
Telework is also at the heart of government-wide efforts to reduce greenhouse gas pollution from indirect sources such as employee travel. In July, President Obama committed the government to reducing these emissions by 13 percent by 2020. In reducing the number of cars on the road, telework can significantly reduce air pollution.
Telework’s reduction of car commuters could have yet another benefit: easing NIH’s parking shortage. Currently, ORF pays $83 per off-campus parking space, totaling about $10 million each year. In an era of uncertain budgets, teleworking can help reduce not only parking costs, but also office space costs through the use of hoteling. Bob Pike of NIDDK’s Grants Management Office utilizes hoteling, allowing employees who telework on opposite days to share one office space when they are physically in the office. “It allows you to condense your space needs,” Pike explains. NIDA has also reduced its space costs through the use of hoteling without compromising its mission. Mary Affeldt, executive officer of NIDA, points out that survey feedback has shown that both customer and employee satisfaction have increased in response to the new hoteling and telework arrangements.
If all that were not enough, a new reason to embrace telework has appeared on the horizon: federal law. A bill that passed the Senate on Sept. 30 commits federal agencies to determine employees’ eligibility for telework, develop written agreements with authorized employees and establish telework policies and training. The House passed a similar bill last summer and President Obama is a firm supporter of telework. Between this potential law and current deliberations at HHS, telework mandates for NIH may not be far in the future.
Greater telework utilization need not inspire fear in managers. “Our experience has been very positive,” says NCI’s Twomey. He said he works with employees who are in different buildings or even different sites, so telework does not change how he supervises workers. He believes that “it is always more important to manage an employee’s work than an employee’s time.” Analysis by CSR’s Kerry Murphy showed that its employees have the same if not increased level of performance while teleworking as they do while working in the office.
NIDDK’s Pike has also found no drop in productivity in his branch. “We trust our employees and the work gets done,” he said.
Managers might also consider telework’s recruiting and retention benefits. “Telework has been a very useful recruiting tool,” says Pike. “New employees want these options.” He sees current employees also responding well. “More than anything, telework has improved the overall morale of the office.”
Though setting up an effective teleworking office is not as easy as plugging in a computer, NIH managers have proven that it can be done. NIDA’s Affeldt says, “If you have enthusiastic employees, some telework experience and strong leadership, almost any office can use some form of telework.”
For more information on telework at NIH, visit http://hr.od.nih.gov/workingatnih/telework/. http://www.workplace-evolutionaries.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/
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