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Most federal agencies are far from meeting mandated requirements for having employees work remotely, a situation that is costing the government millions of dollars and contributing to the high turnover in the federal work force, according to a recent survey.

The Jan. 22 study, conducted by the Telework Exchange—a telecommuting advocacy group—and underwritten by Tandberg Federal, said the benefits derived from teleworking for both employees and agencies are being ignored in part by federal managers who do not know that it’s required or fear that they will lose control over their employees.

According to 7-year-old federal guidelines, agencies are required to have 25 percent of eligible employees telecommute. Among those not eligible are security personnel, receptionists and lab employees, according to the regulations. Employees can benefit from an improved work-life balance with teleworking, while agencies see increased worker productivity, higher employee retention and savings in such areas as real estate costs.

“Only 35 percent of managers believe their agencies support telework,” said Steve O’Keeffe, executive director of Telework Exchange, in Alexandria, Va. Much of the problem has to do with how federal managers actually work, he said. “Managers need to understand how to manage their employees, not just how to watch them work,” O’Keeffe said.

Michael Phillips, deputy inspector general for audit at the federal Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, in Washington, said about 93 percent of his agency’s 293 employees telecommute at least part of their time each week, saving about $100,000 per year in each of its sites in Atlanta and Dallas through lower real estate costs. “We’ve returned vast amounts of space in Atlanta and Dallas to [General Services Administration] because we didn’t need it,” Phillips said.

Phillips said his agency has created rules to make sure that employees work as they should. “We set up strong policies and procedures and established an agreement that the employees and the manager sign that employees actually focus on their work,” he said. “As part of the agreement, we make sure that it’s specific assignment- or task-based while they’re telecommuting.”

Some employees telework full time, while others telework several times a week. Still others telework occasionally, depending on the project they’re working on, Phillips said. A key benefit has been in helping the agency keep employees, he said.

“What we’ve found is that we’re faced with a potential bubble of retirements,” Phillips said. “It’s been a tremendous retention incentive.”

Retention is important to the federal government. According to a 2006 survey by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, six out of every 10 federal employees—including 90 percent of senior executives—will be eligible to retire over the next 10 years, with 40 percent likely to retire when first eligible.

Teleworking forces federal managers to rethink how they relate to their employees, which is leading to some of the resistance, said Joel Brunson, president of Tandberg Federal, in Reston, Va. “Managers need to understand that teleworkers work longer hours, have longer attention spans, take fewer breaks,” Brunson said. “They are more productive on the days they telework than when they’re in the office.”

O’Keeffe said events—including the continued closing of military bases around the world—may force reluctant agencies to allow teleworking. “As the days get closer on BRAC [the Department of Defense’s Base Realignment and Closure program], it drives urgency,” he said.

Allowing teleworking will let Department of Defense agencies retain employees without making them move to a new location, O’Keeffe said.