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American Forces Press Service

Defense Department Seeks to Expand Telework Program

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 7, 2009 – An updated Defense Department policy expected to be released next month will encourage more managers to adopt telework arrangements for their employees.

Almost 17,000 department employees teleworked during the 2008 calendar year, Michael Sena from the Pentagon’s civilian personnel policy told American Forces Press Service.

Teleworking, sometimes referred to as telecommuting, means employees work some portion of their work week from home or in another approved alternate location.

Sena said he believes the number of Defense Department participants is actually higher than those reported to the Office of Personnel Management for its Annual Telework Report to Congress.

But while trying to get a firmer grasp of the true numbers, defense officials are working to increase the visibility of its telework program and get more workers to participate, he said.

The department’s efforts are part of a broader governmentwide plan. OPM Director John Berry emphasized in an early May memo to heads of executive departments and agencies he wants to see more federal teleworkers.

Berry cited some growth in the federal telework program over time, but lamented that “progress has been slow and not always steady.” Congress has taken note, he said, introducing legislation in both houses to increase participation.

“I am now committing OPM to moving the Federal Telework Program forward, with an ambitious agenda that will require support and assistance from you and your staff,” he told the federal leaders.

Berry described in his memo some of the benefits of teleworking. “Depending on individual agency goals and needs, a vital telework initiative can help recruit and retain valuable employees, enhance morale, support continuity of operations, reduce real estate costs and mitigate environmental impact,” he wrote.

The Defense Department recognizes the benefits as well, Sena said, noting that telework:

-- Enables employers to continue working even during emergencies that might keep them from the workplace;

-- Enhances worker productivity by reducing distractions;

-- Reduces commuting time and expense, as well as traffic and gas emissions;

-- Helps employees balance their responsibilities in and out of the workplace; and

-- Provides an incentive for recruiting and retaining employees, particularly those with hard-to-find skills.

But many defense jobs aren’t suitable for telework, Sena emphasized, particularly in light of a mission that frequently involves working with classified or sensitive information.

So the Defense Department is studying new security measures to keep sensitive and classified material from being compromised by teleworking employees, Marilee Fitzgerald, acting deputy undersecretary for civilian personnel policy, told Federal Times in a recent interview.

In Washington, for example, a new pilot program established as part of the fiscal 2010 defense budget will set up a secure telework site for federal employees who need to access classified networks.

As the department works through these issues, the Defense Information Systems Agency provides a standout example of a successful telework program. About 45 percent of DISA’s employees telework up to three days a week, using laptops with built-in smart-card readers for authentication to access enterprise systems via a virtual private network.

DISA officials hail the program, which they say has become of their most prized and effective recruitment and retention strategies.

Teleworking also has become a way to manage the impact of DISA’s upcoming move from Arlington, Va., to Fort Meade, Md., in 2010 and 2011 as part of the base realignment and closure plan, officials report.

An anonymous survey conducted in May revealed that 58 percent of DISA’s 4,300 headquarters workers plan to remain with the agency after the move -- a 19 percent increase from the 2008 survey, Jack Penkoske, director of manpower, personnel and security, reported. More than 75 percent of the responders said the ability to work at least partly from home would play a role in their final decisions.

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