Proving that top-down support can jumpstart any new telework initiative, Vice Admiral Thomas Barrett, U.S. Coast Guard (Ret.), deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), stated during his keynote address at the Telework Exchange Spring 2008 Town Hall Meeting that he and other senior officials had set an ambitious goal of getting half of eligible DOT employees participating in a telework program as soon as possible.
"We are committed to making telework an integrated, standard part of agency operations," he said.
Telework offers a number of benefits that correlate perfectly with DOT's mission priorities, Barrett stated, and "as a result, we want to take a leadership role in promoting telework at the Federal level. We think it's a path forward to a high-performing and high-morale workforce."
Already, 22 percent of DOT employees are participating in telework in some capacity (the number increases to 36 percent if the Federal Aviation Administration is not included in the total DOT headcount), and Barrett said that the overwhelming majority of positions meet eligibility requirements for some level of teleworking.
"It's a modern answer to a decades-old and increasingly challenging issue, and that is moving people from their home to their workplace and back again every day," he said of telework's appeal. "The transportation infrastructure pretty much across the country, but especially in urban areas, is under increasing strain. And while we are going to continue to make the system more efficient and expand capacity where we need to, we're really excited about telework's ability to lighten the load borne by our road and transit systems."
Barrett also sees telework as a critical element in his agency's Continuity of Operations (COOP) plan. In late April, during Pope Benedict XVI's recent visit to Washington D.C., DOT conducted its first-ever remote operation exercise at the departmental level. The test, which involved 5,400 employees at DOT headquarters, was designed to determine whether or the agency could successfully manage a scenario where most of the workforce, in this case, 60 percent, was out of the office and actively teleworking.
"From my perspective, it worked pretty well," Barrett said, explaining that the agency experienced operational continuity and maintained strong communication between managers and employees. "It certainly showed us that the ability to function as a department in emergency situations is a reality."
Not everything went perfectly, he admitted. The secure remote access capability was hard to maintain, for example. However, when there were interruptions or the system slowed, employees were able to access e-mail through WebNet, "so we had some level of connectivity pretty much for everybody that needed it."
The agency still has a long way to go in meeting its overall telework goals, Barrett said, but DOT's strategy in progressing its initiative includes putting significant resources into employee and supervisor training; providing supervisors with the latitude to work with an employee to determine how many days a week telework are appropriate, given the job requirements and individual work-style of that employee; and allowing and encouraging supervisors to telework.
DOT also is "flipping the bias," he explained, by categorizing all non-mission critical jobs as eligible for telework and challenging supervisors to make the case for why certain jobs should not be eligible.
Finally, Barrett concluded, striking the right balance between patience and boldness is critical to success. "Just as it takes time to make a friend, with something like telecommuting, it takes time to become friendly to it, to become comfortable with it, and I actually think over time, we will get there. But we're obviously going to push it a bit."