Telework programs at the federal, state, and local levels are expanding rapidly due to the COVID pandemic. While these programs had been slowly increasing over the past decade, efforts were stalled at the federal level until this spring. Due to stay at home orders issued last March, a large portion of public sector employees is now teleworking. So, what has this year taught us about telework programs? What do public sector employers need to know moving forward? Here’s what government employers need to know about the future of telework and telework benefits.
Definition of Telework
According to the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010:
‘”Telework’ or ‘teleworking’ refers to a work flexibility arrangement under which an employee performs the duties and responsibilities of such employee’s position, and other authorized activities, from an approved worksite other than the location from which the employee would otherwise work.”
This legislation was specifically geared toward federal employees and agencies. However, many state and local governments also use telework to refer to employees working from alternative worksites during regular hours. The private sector has taken up slightly different terminology to mean the same, including “telecommuting” and “flexible workplace.”
Federal Telework Programs and Legislation
The federal government has offered programs and legislation encouraging telecommuting since the 1990s. However, the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 was the first comprehensive legislation to require telework policies. The act directs all federal agencies to identify employees eligible to telework and offer them opportunities to participate. The goal of the legislation was to contribute to Continuity of Operations (COOP) plans and improve responsiveness during crisis events. The intent was to help agencies achieve recruitment goals, retention targets, and enhance the work-life balance of federal employees.
In practice, the program has experienced some success. According to the 2019 Telework Report to Congress, prior to the pandemic, the number of eligible employees was 905,882, or about 42% of government employees. Of that number, 483,336, or 51%, participated in telework. This number represents 22% of the entire federal workforce.
Unfortunately, the congressional report also indicated a stagnant growth rate over the previous three years. This is primarily due to the reliance of telework policies on the attitudes of supervisors and agency management. Indeed, several large agencies including the Social Security Administration and Department of Education recently attempted to reduce or eliminate programs. However, the roll-backs didn’t result in productivity or accountability increases.
The COVID pandemic changed the rules of the game, sending most federal employees into telework status almost overnight. More than six months later, around 75% remain in telework status according to a survey by the Government Business Council. Most also don’t expect to return to the office soon. In fact, only 10% expect to return within two months.
Leadership has been spotty during this effort with most agencies implementing or expanding their telework programs with little direction. Initial guidance was delivered March 15, 2020 via memorandum to department and agency heads. The memo requested that employers allow eligible employees to maximize their telework flexibility and telework-enable as many employees as possible.
Lawmakers are lending support to strengthen and continue telework policies with two pieces of bipartisan legislation. These are the Emergency Telework Act of 2020 (S.3561) and the Pandemic Federal Telework Act (S. 4518). The goal of the legislation is to allow eligible federal employees to telework until the COVID national emergency ends.
State & Local Government Programs
In response to the 2010 federal legislation, most states introduced their own telework-friendly policies. While the uptake rate varies, almost all have provisions to support telework that predate the current pandemic. In addition, many cities and counties also created similar policies. Policies at the state and local level can also include private sector incentives to encourage telework for non-government employees.
The goals of these programs usually include same goals as the federal policies. For example, continuity of operations, ability to attract top talent, and improving work-life balance for employees. However, there are additional goals for teleworking at the state and local level. These can include reducing stress on aging infrastructure, traffic congestion, and pollution levels caused by commuting. Also, telework is being explored as an effort to maintain population levels where there is a lack of jobs for young, educated professionals.
Beginning with New Jersey and North Carolina in early March, state governments around the country moved employees to telework status. In addition, organizations like the International City/County Management Association sought to assist smaller governments in implementing effective telework policies and procedures. Fortunately, many governments were ahead of the game. One example is Fresno, California. The city government already had policies, an upgraded network, and the equipment and software licenses in place to facilitate the transition.
Benefits of Telework
The COVID pandemic is a trial-by-fire to find if current telework policies are adequate and the ostensible benefits are proven true. The challenge in quantifying telework benefits within the federal government is a lack of goal setting and data collection. The goals set by each department are different, supported by various strategies, and may or may not include a way to track success. However, below are the most commonly reported benefits of telework along with a brief summary of any current research.
Emergency Preparedness Telework Benefits
Front and center right now is the continuity of operations (COOP) aspect of telework programs. A main reason the federal telework legislation passed was to ensure the government maintains operations in the event of a crisis. At that time, legislative bodies felt that telework was a key component of any disaster planning strategy.
Judging by anecdotal evidence to date, this strategy is working well. In fact, some federal departments successfully responded to vastly increased demand during the pandemic. For example, the Small Business Administration hired and onboarded thousands of new virtual employees to manage pandemic loan programs. In addition, the Social Services Administration reduced its backlog of pending cases by 11% after only three months of teleworking.
Productivity Telework Benefits
An increase in productivity is the most often-cited of telework benefits. However, many are skeptical at best. Critics of telework feel that unless a manager is present to supervise, the employee will not work as hard. As mentioned earlier, department heads of agencies that scaled back on telework said they did so primarily to increase productivity.
However, in-house research prior to the pandemic called that rationale into question. In addition, private sector research repeatedly finds a boost in productivity from work from home employees. This includes studies that find teleworkers are an average of 35-40% more productive than their office counterparts.
Early indications from the federal government are that despite the rushed transition, there is no loss of productivity. This is backed up by a survey of federal workers by Eagle Hill Consulting in July. Results revealed that 70% of federal employees say they are actually more productive while teleworking during the COVID pandemic.
Cost Savings Telework Benefits
Telework programs are frequently touted as money-savers due to reduced overhead. According to calculations in the Federal Times, if all 900,000 eligible employees telecommuted half-time, office space could be reduced by 25%. The overall estimated savings is $1.75 billion in real estate and $11 billion in total costs.
Tracking actual cost savings in the federal government is uneven and ad hoc. But according to the 2019 Telework Report to Congress, 54% of agencies indicated their telework program achieved cost savings. The highest reported savings were in transit/commuting costs (18%), rent/office space (13%), and reduced absences (10%). Examples include:
- The General Services Administration saving $24.6 million
- The Patent and Trademark Office saving $49.8 million
Telework Benefits for Human Resources
The perks realized by teleworking employees result in benefits for the entirety of the organization when it comes to employee hiring and performance. A 2018 study by the Federal Office of Personnel Management (OPM) indicated that teleworking employees performed better than non-teleworking employees.
Specific results included:
- 78% of teleworkers were satisfied with their job compared with 68% of non-teleworkers
- 76% of teleworkers received high performance on their evaluations compared to 72% of their office-bound colleagues
- 68% indicated an intent to stay at their current position compared to 62% of non-participants
The jury is still out regarding any benefits for human resources during the COVID pandemic. However, the results of reducing the telework program by the Department of Education are clear. Most employees reported decreases in productivity and requirements to use more sick and annual leave. In addition, 87% of respondents reported decreased morale and 86% knew someone who had or was considering leaving the department. In addition, most supervisors also did not see any positive impact from the program’s reduction either.
Telework Benefits for the Community
One of the most impactful byproducts of telework programs are those that benefit the community at large. These benefits are especially important to meet the goals of state and local governments. Expectations are that increases in telework will:
- Reduce the strain on infrastructure
- Lower pollutions levels
- Improve public health outcomes
Clearly, there has been a reduction in commuter traffic due to COVID restrictions. While country-wide data is not currently available, Los Angeles and Ventura Counties reported a 30% to 40% drop in vehicle miles travelled (VMT) between December 1, 2019, and March 31, 2020, according to Institute of Transportation Engineers data.
The impact of the COVID-induced shift to telework on air pollution is indisputable. Cities across the country and around the world reported drastic decreases in common chemicals associated with vehicle emissions. This includes dips in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM). For example, the EPA confirmed a year-to-year drop of over 30% in pollution levels in San Francisco following the shelter-in-place order.
On the public health side, an estimated 50 million people with telework-compatible positions would prevent 95,000 traffic-related injuries and deaths per year and save more than $11 billion. Moreover, a study released by the Road Ecology Center at the University of California-Davis found traffic accidents and crash-related injuries and deaths dropped 50% during the first three weeks of California’s shelter-in-place order.
Employee Telework Benefits
Employees also report numerous benefits of telework. In addition to increased productivity, telework employees enjoy cost savings, improved job satisfaction, and a better work-life balance among other aspects.
The cost savings that telework can bring include reduced requirements for gas, clothes, food, parking, and in some cases childcare. According to Global Workplace Analytics, the average savings for a half-time worker would come to $2,000 to $6,500 per year.
Does teleworking still result in improvements in how employees view their jobs, even with the added stress of a pandemic? The answer seems to be a resounding yes. The Eagle Hill study cited above found that since working virtually due to COVID had the following effects:
- 79% of federal workers are more committed to their agency’s mission
- 76% are more motivated to meet expectations
- 70% have more trust in their colleagues
How Telework Measures Up
The COVID pandemic has resulted in a forced and hurried transition to telework for most of the public sector workforce. Yet despite the nature of the transition, early results show that agency leaders and their employees responded successfully to the challenge. In most cases, productivity has not suffered, and employees are feeling positive about their work status. In addition, the community benefits of traffic reduction are also becoming more apparent. With these results in mind, public sector leaders can feel confident that telework programs will result in multiple positive outcomes. The key is to develop strategic goals with measurable outcomes to prove their value in the long run.
What are your thoughts on telework benefits? Have you noticed any improvement in productivity or morale since moving to remote work? Connect with Virtual Vocations on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and YouTube to share your advice. We’d love to hear from you!
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