US government teleworking more than private industry: US ambassador

By GovTechReview Staff
Wednesday, 21 November, 2012

A series of natural disasters has given so much momentum to government teleworking in the US that a higher percentage of public-sector employees now telework than the percentage of private-sector employees who do so, according to that country's highest representative in Australia.

Speaking via videoconference link at the recent Telework Forum 2012 – which kicked off the government-sponsored National Telework Week – US Ambassador to Australia Jeffrey Bleich said years of experience working around interruptions from floods, storms, and earthquakes had built up a government culture in which working from home had long ago been normalised.

When Hurricane Sandy recently hit the country's east coast, for example, 300,000 federal workers in the Washington, D.C. area stayed home and were able to continue their work despite the intense storm damage across the city.

"It's a form of emergency management," explained Bleich, who spent years teleworking from his home in San Francisco to his "office" in Washington D.C., 5000km away. "Whether it's an earthquake or a flu outbreak, sometimes it's simply necessary – or sometimes it's just better – to work from home."

Teleworking has also proved valuable in helping government bodies capture the skills of staff who may not want to relocate to a centralised government city to perform their duties: the US Patent & Trademarks Office, for example, began its teleworking program in 1997 with just 18 trademark attorneys, and now has two-thirds of its 11,000 employees working exclusively via telework.

"Some of them come to the PTO headquarters outside Washington D.C. just once or twice a year," Bleich said. "The PTO wasn't sure what to expect at first, but as the program grew they found that not only were employees happier, but they were working more and whittling down a big backlog of applications that had accumulated there. They were saving money on their office cost, and found it was easier to recruit talented staff that just didn't want to move there."

Federal government endorsement came when US president Barack Obama – nicknamed 'Telecommuter in Chief', Bleich laughed – sponsored the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010, which mandated the creation of teleworking strategies byall Federal agencies. Those agencies must not only develop a formal teleworking plan, but actively evaluate employee roles to see which are most suitable for teleworking. Departmental responsibilities extend to ensuring home offices are technologically capable and ergonomically appropriate.

The program has been wildly successful, with 20% of all US Federal employees teleworking last year. But that's just the beginning, Bleich said: "We did a survey and only about one in four of the people whose jobs would fit well into telework, actually do so yet," he said.

"There is plenty of opportunity for us to increase it even further. At the US Embassy, for example, we're going to be doing even more with telework once we sort out a couple of technology and legal issues to make sure that encrypted and secure communications stay encrypted and secure."

Those figures will offer nothing but encouragement for the Australian government, which embarked towards a formal target of having 12% of employees teleworking by 2020 when prime minister Julia Gillard set down the goal just minutes before Bleich spoke. That's about double the 6% penetration at the moment, and far short of the teleworking levels expected in the US by that time.

But you've got to start somewhere, and Bleich is optimistic about the opportunities ahead for government bodies to foster a culture where teleworking benefits both their operating effiency and employees' quality of life. "The US government has been on the cutting edge of both working to make it easier for companies to adopt teleworking, and also to promoting telework itself," he said.

"Telework is essential to maintaining our lifestyle, being more productive, managing our families, and improving the environment. And technology and competition are only going to make this more and more common. This is the future."

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