As autumn sets in around the Washington metro area, many recall the severe snow storms that all but incapacitated the federal government last winter. The government was officially closed for several days, while streets remained clogged with snow and metro trains sat in stations, dark and empty.

Many workers found themselves trapped, unable to escape the mountains of unplowed snow lining the streets around their homes to get to work. And many of these unlucky people who couldn’t  telework were penalized for their absences– or let go.

Headlines of loyal nurses and teachers who had worked at local hospitals and schools for decades–but who were suddenly let go–splashed the area papers, to the alarm and shock of local residents.

Many were also dismayed to learn that the closure of the federal government during the winter cost $100 million a day in lost productivity.

This did not go unnoticed. According to an article by Ed O’Keefe in last week’s Washington Post, President Obama was compelled to ask John Berry, the director of the Office of Personnel Management, to find a solution.  The solution he found was telework.

The president made it clear to me that he doesn’t want snow, nature, or any other cause to be able to stop our government, Berry told the conference. Since OPM doesn’t control the weather or the plows, telework is the only way to achieve the goal that the president very clearly set, Berry said.

On September 30, the Senate unanimously passed the Telework Improvements Act of 2010, and now both Houses of Congress must reconcile different versions of the bill before the president signs it into law. That could happen after November’s midterm elections.

The Telework Act would require executive agencies to determine which federal employees are eligible for telework, and to establish telework policies for eligible workers.

This would go a long way toward cost savings during potential future snowstorms or other emergencies. But, it would do more than that. With the passage of the Act, the federal government would set an important example for the wider business community that workplace flexibility is a strategic management tool that can enhance and improve the way work gets done.

Having the federal government lead by example on workplace flexibility was one of the goals the president articulated at the White House Forum on Workplace Flexibility in March.

The Women’s Bureau now plans to continue the White House conversation on flexibility throughout the country on the local level, so that everybody’s voice will be heard on this important issue that effects the way we live and work.

Corporate Voices is helping the Women’s Bureau organize a series of National Dialogues on Workplace Flexibility to spur business engagement around these local conversations. We will invite our workplace flexibility campaign Business Champions to share the challenges and best-practices of implementing flexibility with those at the National Dialogues. We will also spread the word about local events on flexibility that occur around the National Dialogues. One such example is the Flexible Workplace Initiative’s upcoming panel discussion on “The Future of Workplace Flexibility,” in Houston on October 28. Register for the live webcast.

With the White House and the federal government leading by positive example, and with the business community championing workplace flexibility as a business imperative, we may just avoid the productivity losses of last year. And we may take an important step towards work-life progress.