The term “telework” was coined by a consultant for a U.S. Air Force program who thought employees would be better off spending time working from home rather than commuting. Although the idea is nearly 40 years old, it’s still hampered by the belief that if employees aren’t at their office desks, they’ll slack off, says Kenneth Green of the American Enterprise Institute. “Employers like the warm-body theory of labor,” says Green, who has studied the phenomenon of what is now more popularly called telecommuting. “They think, like some Roman generals, if you are followed around by more constituents, you are more powerful.”
But several federal agencies, adhering to a proposal from early in the last decade to raise the rate of telecommuting by 20 percent, have saved money and found efficiencies by boosting their share of work-at-home employees.
The U.S. Office of Personnel Management says 8 percent of all federal employees telework now, but in some agencies the rate—and the corresponding savings—are much higher.
The popularity of telework in government outpaces trends in the private workforce. The share of regular full-time employees who usually work some portion of the week from home increased from 1.1 percent in 2000 to 2.1 percent in 2010, according to a May report from the Conference Board.
The Federal Railroad Administration, says Green, has saved $250,000 a year in office space because of telecommuting. The General Services Administration has set up four telecenters—offices equipped with desks, computers, and phone lines—which employees can use on a temporary basis. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has cut its number of offices nationwide from 18 to 6, with 85 percent of its employees telecommuting.
“Remember the earthquake in Virginia last year? We didn’t lose time because so many of our people were equipped,” says Danette Campbell, a senior adviser on telework at the Patent and Trademark Office. Campbell says her office sets work standards which employees and supervisors agree upon, adding that studies have shown work-at-home employees meet standards just as well—and sometimes better—than those forced to come to an office. “Believe it or not, teleworkers get more done,” she said. “It is a culture you have to endorse, but once you do, it works.”
The Patent and Trademark Office estimated that in 2011 teleworking employees saved more than 28 million miles traveled and reduced emissions by 15,000 tons.