In the not too distant past, the General Services Administration has been criticized by its own inspector general’s office for how it administers its telework program.
The IG’s report from January 2015 said that GSA didn’t know how many virtual employees it had, that virtual work arrangements were not being assessed on a regular basis, and that hours worked by some virtual employees were not being accurately reported.
Yet the tension between empowering employees to work from home and managers’ ability to supervise was on full display during Winter Storm Jonas, the snowstorm at the end of January 2016 – almost exactly one year after that report – that delivered record amounts of snow and closed federal government offices throughout the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast for all or part of several days.
The agency reported on its blog that of the roughly 3,800 employees in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, approximately 3,600 of them were eligible to telework. The agency’s virtual private network saw a threefold increase in demand, according to the report.
“Our GSA telework policy provides employees the flexibility to meet the needs of our customers from anywhere, while providing the benefit of increased work life balance … It is great to see that during times of extreme weather or government closure, our workforce is still able to carry out our important mission for the American people,” Antonia Harris, GSA Chief Human Capital Officer, told the blog poster.
Many saw the IG’s audit as a salvo in the cultural clash between traditional office practices and emerging practices revolving around mobility. Indeed, most of the critiques leveled by the IG’s report centered on management and control issues. The quality of the work being done was not questioned.
When IT first became so ubiquitous that telecommuting was truly feasible, GSA and the Office of Personnel Management created telework centers, dedicated offices located outside existing buildings so that commuters could have shorter drives and still be working in an office environment. They were a bust – the three centers, in Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia, closed in 2011.
“With the notion of teleworking taking hold, it is important to have the right tools in place to manage both the regular day to day impact on a network from telework, but also in the case of Winter Storm Jonas, being prepared for a surge remote access,” said Joel Dolisy, CIO, SolarWinds.
But the underlying concept, that workers can use technology to be productive and effective in carrying out their assignments without enduring the time loss, stress, and expense of commuting to a central location, continues to expand.
“And with the sophistication of remote support tools, even IT teams can work remotely and be able to ensure end users have access to all of the applications and data they need from the comfort of their own homes,” added Dolisy.
Indeed, 95 percent of GSA staff can now telework. Imagine what the Beltway would look like on a Tuesday at 5 p.m. if more agencies followed GSA’s lead.