When the Defense Information Systems Agency moved its headquarters from Arlington, Va., about 30 miles north to Fort Meade, Md., as part of the Defense Department's Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) program, many of its workers faced a brutal commute.
The Washington, D.C., area has some of the worst traffic in the nation, but DISA was able to shorten the commutes of most of its workforce greatly. The agency implemented an aggressive telework program that saves time for its workers and yields numerous benefits for DISA, among them improved retention rates of employees.
"Based on the number of personnel we were able to retain before, during and after the BRAC, telework played a major role," says Bobbie Sanders, a management analyst for manpower, personnel and security at DISA.
DISA is one of several federal agencies with highly successful telework programs that provide both the government and its workers with significant benefits. Other agencies, such as the General Services Administration (GSA) and the Agriculture Department (USDA), find that letting workers be productive away from their offices helps the government save millions of dollars and makes workers happier.
The growth of telework in the federal government has been pushed along by the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010, says Cindy Auten, general manager of Telework Exchange, a Washington organization that promotes telework. "In the year since its passage, we've seen a lot of progress in getting people to be eligible, then regularly teleworking, then teleworking more," Auten says.
Auten lauded DISA's telework program as one of the federal government's best. The agency has 4,300 teleworkers — about 75 percent of its workforce — who work from home up to three days a week. "Our goal is to get as many of our people teleworking as possible, based on the mission and supervisors' approval," Sanders says.
A Key Concern
Security is a major concern for an agency that handles military and intelligence data. To bolster security, DISA issues notebook computers to its teleworkers, which they must use when working remotely. They are allowed to telework only from inside their homes and telework centers, using a Common Access Card to log on to their computers. Teleworkers access the DISA network via a virtual private network (VPN) connection, and data that resides on the notebook hard drives is encrypted using SafeNet software.
Users who handle classified data are not allowed to work from home, but DISA — with help from GSA — has set up a location in Northern Virginia that allows them to work without having to drive all the way to Fort Meade.
Security is an important consideration for any federal telework program. For example, Agriculture takes several steps to bolster security as its workers move outside its offices. Users can log on to the network in two ways — either via an enterprise VPN or through Citrix desktop virtualization software.
USDA's VPN uses two-factor authentication integrated with a network admission control solution and "is part of a larger endpoint security strategy intended to drive security policy enforcement down to computing devices across the USDA," according to Owen Unangst, director of the Enterprise Network Services team in Agriculture's Office of the CIO.
Teleworkers who use the Citrix virtual desktop can access applications and data hosted internally on the agency's network without having to install software or store data on their computers. This improves security by giving the department control of encrypted data and applications while letting users access them from anywhere.
USDA also has deployed McAfee's Enterprise Mobility Management tool to improve the security of users' devices. Other tools the department's teleworkers use include Microsoft SharePoint, Live Meeting and Exchange, and USDA Connect, Agriculture's intranet site.
Agriculture's telework program has grown rapidly over the last year, says Mika Cross, the department's telework program manager. USDA now has nearly 75,000 employees who are eligible to telework — more than 75 percent of the total workforce — and the department hopes to reach 45 percent participation this fiscal year.
The department expects to save as much as $2 million in 2012 on transit subsidies it provides to employees who commute into work, and the telework program also is an important part of USDA's continuity of operations (COOP) plan in case of an emergency or disaster.
"Telework provides decision-makers with the critical flexibilities needed to effectively and safely continue governmental operations during hazardous emergency conditions," Cross says. "Workers are every bit as available as if they were at the office."
93% Percentage of DISA teleworkers who say they are more productive or as productive as they were before telework
SOURCE: Defense Information Systems Agency, 2011
The department tracks all employee performance — teleworkers and office workers alike — using the same performance management program and standards. "What we're trying to emphasize at USDA is that we're focusing on performance, accountability and responsibility," Cross says.
Real Estate Bonanza
Like USDA, GSA's telework program has grown rapidly in recent years, and agency officials expect a policy that went into effect last year to shift that growth into an even higher gear.
"We're starting with the assumption that all employees are initially qualified to telework," says Jim LeVerso, director of Mobile Workforce Staff in GSA's CIO Office.
In fiscal 2010, 35 to 40 percent of GSA employees teleworked, which the agency calculates helped save about $1.5 million. The agency expects those savings to go much higher as it conducts a real estate consolidation effort. GSA plans to consolidate its employees from several major complexes around the Washington area to the GSA headquarters building in the district. The building can support 2,000 workers, but it will be the office location for up to 4,000, which will be made possible by telework, says Casey Coleman, GSA's CIO.
Agencies have taken different routes to success, but some factors are common among the top telework programs. Training workers to be prepared for telework can be as important as providing them with the right technology. Employees at DISA and GSA must complete online training courses before they're allowed to telework. USDA offers both online and classroom training for teleworkers.
At each agency, managers also must complete training on how to successfully supervise teleworkers. "I would say that the lesson learned for us is that we still have supervisors who are reluctant about telework," Sanders says. "So we still have to educate them and get them to embrace the technologies."
Support from the top of the agency is also a common factor. At USDA, that support goes all the way up to department Secretary Tom Vilsack, Cross says. "Telework is a component of the department's cultural transformation initiative, so Secretary Vilsack expects to see participation, and he holds folks accountable," she says.
DISA's brass has shown similar support. "For DISA, the buy-in has been great from our senior leaders," Sanders says. "That's critical to any telework program."
Keys to a Successful Telework Program
As agencies work to meet the requirements of the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010, Cindy Auten, general manager of the Telework Exchange, says the General Services Administration provides an excellent example of telework success. She offers these tips based on GSA's telework program:
Senior-level support is a must. Top agency leaders must be comfortable with telework, Auten says, and they have to change their mindset from one that values time and attendance to one that values productivity.
Human resources personnel have to connect with IT staff. These two key groups must work together to implement a successful telework program.
Automated systems must be in place to track performance. GSA has implemented a telework dashboard that tracks numerous metrics about its program. The dashboard is a major factor in the agency's telework success, and other agencies should look to replicate its functionality, Auten says.