Wouldn’t it be nice if you could work from home? My job doesn’t allow it, but yours might. And if it does, you and your superiors should look into it.
It would be more convenient, of course. It also would save the energy we use to commute and would ease traffic – a huge concern in the National Capital Region and lots of other places around the country. And, as an employee “perk,” it has been shown to have significant positive impact on employee retention and job satisfaction. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, whose telework program recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, reports that 99 percent of its employees indicated increased job satisfaction because of telework, 75 percent reported “significant” gains in job satisfaction, and 90 percent say telework has influenced them to stay at USPTO. Patent Office officials have asked Congress to waive the rule that employees report to the office even once a week.
But none of this is why I authored legislation in 2000 to require federal agencies to promote telework. And it is not why I and three other members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee – Representatives Danny Davis (D-Ill.), Kenny Marchant (R-Texas), and Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) – have begun a survey of agencies to find out to what degree those agencies are complying with the law and what Congress might be able to do to increase participation.
The purpose of the survey is to improve homeland security and, at the same time, to keep the federal government running. If a major mass-casualty incident happened in Washington, D.C. – a chemical or biological attack, for example, or a dirty bomb, a natural disaster, an outbreak of a contagious disease, or any other event that threatened to shut down the city and the federal government – federal employees who could work from home instantaneously would become the bulwark of the government.
Moreover, anyone who was in Washington on September 11, 2001, knows the value of measures that significantly reduce traffic on area roads. On that day, local leaders and others called for an evacuation of the city. All over D.C., workers were sent home about 10:00 a.m. Many of them did not make it until early evening because of the crush of traffic, the inability of Metro to handle the surge in passengers, and the general confusion that gripped the city, and the nation, after the attack. If another attack had occurred on Washington that day, tens of thousands of citizens, if not more, could have died while waiting in traffic.
Despite a law that has been in effect since 2004 that calls for federal agencies to establish policies so that “eligible employees may participate in telecommuting to the maximum extent possible without diminished performance,” only 19 percent of eligible employees have participated in a federal telework program. Our survey seeks to find out how agencies define telework, who they deem to be “eligible,” and why and how they go about notifying those employees that they are eligible for telework. The survey also seeks to identify roadblocks – including management resistance – to determine what can be done to overcome those barriers.
We are not looking to punish anyone or single out anyone or any agency. We are trying to determine why fewer than one fifth of eligible employees are doing telework. We are trying to find out why managers resist and what can be done either to overcome that resistance or, more accurately, to identify which employees can indeed participate in telework programs without disrupting office business.
The Department of Homeland Security simply is not an agency where poor morale and widespread turnover can be tolerated. Our safety as a nation depends on all of its 170,000 employees being willing to go above and beyond, if necessary. However, recent news reports suggest that executives’ claims of improved morale and order at the sprawling agency may be wishful thinking – this despite numerous efforts to create results-oriented rewards components and to fill the new positions authorized this year for the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency.
Telework won’t solve all of DHS’s problems. And, certainly, not every employee would be eligible. But it is a sensible, inexpensive, innovative way to start.