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What Are the Costs and Benefits of Telework in Federal Agencies?

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Tue Aug 30 2016

What Are the Costs and Benefits of Telework in Federal Agencies?
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The Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 encouraged the use of telework by federal employees, while also focusing on the need to gather data about the impact of telework. GAO recently reviewed the costs and benefits of federal telework at the request of a Congressional committee. Our analysis is reported in Federal Telework: Better Guidance Could Help Agencies Calculate Benefits and Costs. We found that the number of employees eligible to telework increased by 49 percent between 2011 and 2012; the number of employees with telework agreements increased by 84 percent during the same period. Meanwhile, the number of employees teleworking didn't increase by as much, but it increased by about 15 percent between 2012 and 2013. 

But GAO analysis found it difficult to develop a complete picture of the benefits and costs of telework. Agencies report, by law, on the benefits that they experience through telework, and they report annually through a survey that OPM conducts. Based on the survey, OPM produces an annual report to Congress. That report evaluates each agency's progress in meeting the telework goals that the agency defined for itself, like the number of teleworking staff an agency has. Some agency benefit information is numerical, while some is qualitative. Agencies identified a number of benefits, like improved employee recruitment and retention and maintaining operations when there is bad weather or a disruptive event. They cited reduced commuting and transit costs because people are not travelling to the office as much and reduced office rental costs. 

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Concerning the costs of telework, GAO found that agencies have much less information. Of the six agencies that we examined, only two had data supporting costs, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the General Services Administration.  There two kinds of costs, one-time costs such as planning for the establishment of a telework program and the cost of the information technology to help an employee work from home. Second, there are ongoing costs like annual training for employees and the cost of managing the program. 

In addition, the Office of Personnel Management has an additional important role. It provides policy and guidance for telework for all executive branch agencies. OPM can help agencies define appropriate numerical and qualitative measures to assess the impact of telework. OPM can also identify best practices across the government and share them with agencies. While OPM helps agencies, it believes that each agency has the information it needs to define for itself exactly what it wants to achieve via its telework program. But OPM can provide overarching training and policy advice.

After completing our research, GAO recommends that OPM include questions on reporting cost savings in its annual agency survey of telework practices because the Telework Enhancement Act doesn't require that agencies report on costs. But we think that it's good management practice for agencies to report on costs and cost savings. GAO also recommends that agencies work with OPM and the Chief Human Capital Officers’ Council to develop more guidance on potential sources of data for telework costs and benefits. 

Finally, the bottom line of GAO’s research is that like any other agency management policy, agencies need to know the value of telework. Because employees increasingly telework, agencies need to examine its’ impact on performance and bottom line costs. Congress has a clear interest in the value of telework to the federal work force so agencies need to know its’ costs and benefits. In today's constrained budgetary environment cost savings are an important measure of the success of telework, but ultimately, without more verifiable data on costs and benefits, agencies can't determine if the benefits of telework outweigh the costs.

For a deeper dive into this topic, join me September 7 at the Government Workforce Conference for the session: The Telework Task: Innovation in New Environments.

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