Virginia Accelerates Telework Program

By: - April 20, 2006 12:00 am

Traffic congestion – a hot issue in Virginia – has driven lawmakers to shift the state’s telecommuting initiative into overdrive, challenging government managers to allow at least 25 percent of eligible employees to work from home.

Telecommuting, or telework, is considered a win-win for state governments. Employees avoid grueling commutes and high fuel costs; states realize healthier, more productive workers, better air quality, lower office space expenses, and less traffic congestion.

Governors have promoted telework initiatives-a policy almost no one opposes-as a way to allow state workers to spend more time with their families and communities, improving the quality of life for everyone.

At least 34 states have adopted telework programs in selected agencies and regions. Six-Georgia, Kentucky, Virginia, Oregon, Florida and Texas-offer the flexible work option to employees in all agencies throughout the state.

But despite politicians’ efforts, government managers have been slow to offer the work-at-home option, in part because it requires a change in their management styles, said Chuck Wilsker of The Telework Coalition.

As in the federal government’s telework program, most state initiatives call on managers to designate employees who can work from home one or more days a week. But without rigorous guidelines or sanctions, reluctant managers tend to offer the option to only a handful of employees.

Last year, Virginia lawmakers-desperate to alleviate worsening road congestion-turned the tables on government managers. Instead of identifying employees who are eligible for telework, they asked managers to designate those not eligible.

Virginia’s new statute assumes that all government employees are candidates for working at home, and calls on managers to explain why they aren’t. By 2009, the state wants at least one in four eligible workers off the roads one or more days a week.

“For a start, nurses who turn patients and wardens who guard prisoners aren’t eligible,” says program director Sara Wilson of Virginia’s human resources department.

But nearly all other categories of employees-even college professors-are candidates for alternative work arrangements, including flexible schedules to avoid rush hour traffic, four-day work weeks, and working at home, she said.

Virginia launched its telework campaign in 2002, but out of more than 127,000 state workers, fewer than 1,000 are teleworking, according to state reports.

To accelerate the program, last year’s law put the human resources department in charge of coaching managers in all agencies to make the “culture” changes needed to meet the state’s ambitious goals.

“I’m trying to tee up our managers to think about telework in different ways,” Wilson said. “It’s not just about transportation and air pollution. We want to be an employer of choice. … The ability to work at home is a big draw.”

Another way to persuade managers to embrace telework, Wilson said, is to ask how they plan to operate if large numbers of employees are quarantined during a pandemic, or can’t get to work because of a disaster.

Teleworkers have the equipment and telecommunications services in place to continue working during a natural disaster, terrorist attack, or extreme weather conditions, she said.

Georgia’s telework director, Dorothy Gordon, says a typical reason managers offer employees the work-at-home option is to free them from office distractions, such as ringing phones and garrulous colleagues, when time-sensitive projects need to be completed.

Studies show that when employees work from home, absenteeism and sick leave drop dramatically. In addition, employees — grateful for the flexibility to manage their work and life — develop a greater commitment and often are willing to work while traveling or recovering from an illness, according to telecommuting research and advocacy group International Telework Association and Council (ITAC).

Linda Joyce Parker, a 29-year veteran of Georgia’s human resources department, worked at home for two weeks last year while recovering from knee surgery. “I could have taken sick leave,” she said, “but I would have been bored out of my mind, because I’m not into soaps.”

Now Parker works at home about once a month. She swaps telework days with a colleague, so that someone is always in the office, she said.

Georgia launched its telework program during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, because blocked roads and choking traffic made it difficult for workers to come to the office. A permanent policy for state capitol workers was adopted in 2001, and Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) rolled out a statewide initiative in 2003.

Perdue upgraded the “Work Away,” program two months ago, instructing government managers to increase the number of teleworkers by 20 percent this year. Georgia estimates the program saved more than 30 million commuter miles last year.

California, the first state to launch a telework program in 1988, offers a guide for government managers. Noting it is “not always easy to implement,” it urges bosses to manage “by results, not surveillance,” warning them not to fall into the trap of thinking telework only applies to a few jobs.

ITAC said that of 135.4 million American workers, 22.2 million — about 16 percent — worked from home at least once a week last year, an increase of 30 percent from the previous year.

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Christine Vestal

Christine Vestal covers mental health and drug addiction for Stateline. Previously, she covered health care for McGraw-Hill and the Financial Times.