What's behind the telework slump?

What's wrong with this picture? By 2004, all eligible US federal employees will be allowed by law to telework, yet today, only 4% do. To get at the problem, Congress had a research study conducted to identify the technology barriers to telework.

          What's wrong with this picture? By 2004, all eligible US federal employees will be allowed by law to telework, yet today, only 4% do. To get at the problem, Congress had the General Services Administration conduct a research study with Booz-Allen & Hamilton to identify the technology barriers to telework.

          While the recently released report, "Analysis of Home-Based Telework Technology Barriers," found no single or "major" technology barrier, it did reveal a host of things that give cause for alarm.

          "Minor" barriers included a lack agency leadership; poor or nonexistent communication between CIO staff and telework coordinators; lack of planning for teleworker equipment costs in the overall IT budget; lack of funding in individual departments; and lack of technical training for teleworkers, which in turn increases support calls. In essence, federal agencies simply aren't getting their acts together fast enough to meet the fed's goals.

          There's a lot of work to do. Today, 75% of federal teleworkers use a dial-up connection; 19% use a high-speed connection. (Some are paid for by the agency, some not.) More than 50% use their own computer equipment to telework or rely on older recycled PCs given to them by IT, systems that may not be fully compatible with office-based systems.

          Worse, IT support for telework programmes - the provisioning of equipment, services and support - is "frequently provided on an as-needed basis." Many agencies have yet to address how the teleworker's environment should be configured, funded or supported, with decisions concerning selection, acquisition and support handled by individual managers - in effect, creating a mish-mash of equipment and connections that are that much more difficult to support. Not surprisingly, individual teleworkers cited "system performance" and "access to equipment" as their top two technology barriers.

          CIOs interviewed see high-speed access as a "necessary condition" to ensuring teleworkers stay productive, yet feel "unknowns in the current market environment" will hamper ubiquity. Moreover, they raised doubts as to the performance of legacy client-server applications over remote connections, particularly dial up. Surprisingly, the CIOs viewed the security of agency information and systems as an "important but manageable concern."

          Good thing the report offers a road map - and some obvious but seemingly necessary recommendations - for agencies to follow:

          -- Senior management should take a leadership role to ensure sufficient IT and facilities management support for telework programmes.

          -- IT requirements for teleworkers - equipment and network connections - should be factored into long-range enterprise architecture and capital planning efforts.

          -- Federal organisations should consider technologies that can better enable telework implementation - document management, collaboration and communication tools, and performance measurement systems.

          -- Broadband services should be used to expand telework opportunities and improve quality of service.

          -- Information security assessments should include potential vulnerabilities emerging from home-based work.

          -- Effective IT training should be incorporated into telework programs.

          To conduct the study, Booz Allen interviewed seven CIOs, held 10 focus groups with telework coordinators and their staff, and had 1030 teleworkers and 339 telework managers complete questionnaires. Ten agencies participated in the study, including Wright Patterson Air Force Base, the US Internal Revenue Service and the US Department of the Treasury.

          Just released, AT&T's Telework White Paper, which the firm produces annually, surveyed managers who work from home at least five days per month, as well as a pool of nonteleworkers. The study showed these employees tend to be female, between the ages of 35 and 44, work in R&D, IT, marketing or sales, and use company-paid equipment and connectivity - specifically broadband service to access the company intranet. According to the report, AT&T teleworkers gain about one extra hour of productive time each day, with 65% citing they use the time they would have commuted to work. This adds an estimated $US65 million in business benefits each year.

          The bad news? The top reason employees stop teleworking (cited by 36%) is because lack of at-home technology makes them less productive. Moreover, the top reasons nonteleworkers cited for not working at home were related to connection speed. "Slower access to corporate systems" was cited by 49%, and difficulty downloading large files was cited by 46%. Also, a worker with a company-paid data line typically teleworks twice as many days per month as one without (11 days vs. five).

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