As the Washington Metro Area braces itself for another potentially frigid winter, many recall the severe snow storms and  blizzards that incapacitated the federal government last year, costing the government $71 million in lost productivity, according to revised estimates by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).

Last year’s government shut down compelled President Obama and his administration to try to find a solution that would allow the federal government to continue operating, even during inclement weather, natural disasters or other emergencies. The solution they found was telework. As John Berry, the Director of the Office of Personnel Management, said in a Washington Post article earlier this year:

“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…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.”

Important progress was made in expanding the government’s use of telework when President Obama signed the bipartisan Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 into law last week on December 9.  The new law expands telework opportunities for most federal workers, allowing eligible employees to work remotely from home or an off-site location. Under this law, executive agencies are required to:

  • Establish telework policies;
  • Designate a Telework Managing Officer to oversee telework in each agency or department;
  • Determine employee eligibility for telework;
  • Notify all employees of their eligibility;
  • Establish telework training programs for workers and managers;
  • Integrate telework into their Continuity of Operations Planning (COOP); and
  • Provide yearly progress reports to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).

OPM is responsible for developing and issuing telework guidelines, and the Government Accountability Office will evaluate agency compliance and produce an annual report for Congress.

This Act helps to meet several public policy goals, including reducing traffic congestion, reducing our dependence on foreign oil and improving the efficiency of government operations. Congressman John Sarbanes (D-MD,3) , who sponsored the legislation, said in his press release:

“A robust telework program will not only improve government operations during a disaster, it can also be used as a tool to reduce traffic congestion in the DC area. Telework has a positive impact on productivity, quality of life and the environment. If fully integrated, it can save taxpayers money by increasing efficiency, reducing federal office space and improving employee retention.”

This view was shared by Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA 10), who co-sponsored the legislation:

“People who telework are very productive, it takes cars off the road so it’s good for the environment and it helps ensure continuity of government. There are almost no downsides to telework, when done appropriately…Telework is an idea whose time has come, and so the Act brings the government into the 21st century. This is not a  philosophical issue, a Republican, Democratic, Liberal or Conservative issue. It’s an issue of pragmatism and it just works.”

In addition to bringing the government into the 21st century, the Act also sets an example for the wider employer and business communities that flexible work options like telework are strategic management tools that can improve the way work is accomplished. Having the government lead by example on workplace flexibility is admirable, and was one of the goals that President Obama articulated at the  White House Forum on Workplace Flexibility in March.

This Act is also part of a larger discussion about workplace flexibility as a critical management strategy to modernize our nation’s workplaces to meet the increasingly complex and changing needs of the 21st century workforce. As mature workers, students, working moms and dads, hourly workers and military families struggle to balance the dual demands of work and life, flexible work options can improve the lives of working families and the business bottom-line. In turn, they can also help improve our national economic competitiveness.

Corporate Voices for Working Families believes that by giving workers more control over when and where they do their work, employers will see increased employee productivity, morale, engagement and retention. It has published research which documents the positive business impacts of flexibility and tools to implement flexibility with an hourly workforce.

Even though flexibility is good for business, many employers still do not offer flexible work options to their employees. That is why Corporate Voices launched its national workplace flexibility campaign, after the White House Forum, to increase awareness about the positive business and employee benefits of workplace flexibility. Through this national campaign, Corporate Voices aims to sustain the critical forward momentum needed to expand flexibility within the business community.

The passage of the Telework Enhancement Act plays an important role in continuing this forward momentum, and is a welcome step in the right direction toward work-life progress.