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Teleworking Gets a Boost

February 2, 2011
There’s a lot of buzz about the new Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 that was signed into law in December. The law expands and builds upon the existing telework (also known as telecommuting) strategies in place for federal government employees. But its effects are expected to influence states and local governments. When our green committees first met to identify our focus areas for energy conservation and carbon reduction, telecommuting came up over and over again. Why? The transportation sector accounts 30% of all carbon dioxide emissions in the US. After twenty years of experience and studies, teleworking just got a big boost back into the spotlight. 
Our office has a telecommuting policy that allows lawyers to telecommute a day a week. Other employees may telecommute as their divisions permit, but it’s not widely available. It’s more likely, but not common, that employees are allowed to telecommute informally to help them meet a temporary, personal need. It’s more common that employees will work an alternate schedule, such as 9-9-80 with a day off every two weeks.
The federal government has long embraced teleworking and has established telecenters in and around Washington, DC to support the program. According to the US Office of Personnel Management, “The Act provides a framework for agencies to better leverage technology and to maximize the use of flexible work arrangements, which will aid in recruiting new Federal workers, retain valuable talent and allow the Federal government to maintain productivity in various situations -- including those involving national security and other emergency situations."  Remember the snowfall that shut down Washington, DC last winter? 
Human Resources managers and professionals will be watching the federal template to see how well it works and whether other government jurisdictions will follow the lead. Those of us involved in sustainability efforts would be well-advised to do the same. On its face, teleworking is a concept that holds out the promise of helping government to lower its carbon footprint by reducing work commutes. There are studies that indicate teleworking employees are as or more productive than traditional “go to the office” workers. The National Science Foundation and the US Patent Office are two leaders among federal agencies. Not everyone’s a fan, and wary managers will point to a 2008 study by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute that found teleworking negatively impacted job satisfaction and retention for non-teleworkers. 

It’s a classic case of “where you sit is where you stand”. In the upcoming months there is going to be a renewed discussion about teleworking. What green officers can do is get involved in the conversation and help ensure that the environmental benefits weigh in. And let’s be real, helping employees to telework may require additional IT support and energy consumption. All costs need to be taken into account and balanced against the savings, both in dollars and natural resources. If you want to get a jump start on the new law, there’s a free online webinar on February 10 sponsored by Governing magazine and another webinar for a fee on the same date that is sponsored by Park Avenue Presentations. For some background information, I recommend the General Services Administration  website pages about teleworking and a recent article in the Washington Post.