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A workable approach to BRAC

The Baltimore Sun

If he had to show up every day in his office at the Defense Information Systems Agency, Greg Krawczyk says he probably wouldn't be working there. The round-trip commute between his waterfront Pasadena home and the agency's headquarters in Arlington, Va., can take 2 1/2 to four hours - sometimes longer, depending on traffic and weather.

But thanks to the agency's liberal tele-work and work schedule policy, Krawczyk, 48, says he only has to make that grueling drive around congested Washington every other workday. The other days, he's able to sit down and log on to the agency's secure computer network in a modest cinderblock building at Fort Meade, about 30 minutes' drive from his house.

"It's a job saver," says Krawczyk, who helps handle contracts and support agreements for DISA, as the agency is known.

Krawczyk is one of a growing number of Maryland residents joining the defense agency in anticipation of its relocation to Fort Meade four years from now, as part of the nationwide military base realignment ordered by Congress and known as BRAC.

With employee surveys showing that many defense workers say they will quit or retire rather than follow their jobs to Maryland, federal officials are considering expanded telecommuting as a strategy for recruiting workers in the state and reducing turnover. In DISA's case, officials also are hoping liberal workplace policies will help attract more new employees like Krawczyk near the agency's future home. That reduces the risk of losing them later once the agency moves to its $579 million offices planned on what is now Fort Meade's golf course.

"We're very aggressively recruiting in Maryland," says David Bullock, DISA's base realignment executive. "We're doing everything we can in Maryland to let people know that DISA is coming and if you want to work for us now, we'll be happy to have you."

The push to hire Marylanders appears to be showing results. While slightly more than three-fourths of the agency's headquarters workers once lived in Virginia, Bullock says, that percentage lately has slipped to about 71 percent.

The agency is scheduled to move 4,272 jobs to Fort Meade when it relocates its headquarters by 2011, including about 1,500 "embedded" contractor positions. Another 3,000 to 5,000 contract workers who perform work for and with DISA also may relocate.

Bullock says he doesn't know how big of a factor telecommuting plays in attracting new hires from Maryland. The agency liberalized its policy from allowing one day a week out of the office to two a few months before the base-realignment decision was announced.

But he says agency officials have seen a softening of resistance among workers toward relocating to Maryland.

Shortly after the agency's move was announced in 2005, more than half of those polled said they would not follow their jobs to Maryland when the agency relocates. A follow-up survey late last year found that the percentage unwilling to follow their jobs had dropped to about 30 percent.

"We felt pretty good about that," says Bullock. But surveys of employees at Fort Monmouth, N.J., whose jobs are scheduled to move to Aberdeen Proving Ground by 2011, have indicated an even greater reluctance to relocate.

Krawczyk, who signed on with DISA seven months ago after getting out of the Navy, says the freedom to work away from the office was key for him. And being able to pop over to Fort Meade every other day helps him put up with the grind until the agency does relocate, he says.

"The time-saving is huge, the back and forth, wear and tear on my vehicle, the gas. ... I venture to say I wouldn't still be at DISA if I couldn't telecommute," Krawczyk says. "I can't wait until 2010 or 2011."

If any military entity is likely to be promoting telecommuting, it's DISA, which provides information technology for the armed services. Its work force includes 5,200 civilians, the bulk of them based in the Washington area, according to the agency's Web site. DISA also employs 1,900 uniformed military personnel and other civilians in the area and 29 field offices worldwide, the site says.

Most workers with the freedom to telecommute do so from home, but Krawczyk says he finds that too distracting. So two or three times a week, he joins a couple of other DISA workers at one of the six cubicles inside the agency's tele-work center at Fort Meade.

"I can do 90 to 95 percent of my job," he says, with his laptop plugged into the agency network. His presence in the office is only necessary to handle required paperwork. With only a couple of other workers around, he says, he can be more productive at the tele-work center because there aren't a lot of people "bopping in and out."

With the potential disruption of the relocation looming, the agency is weighing expanding the telecommuting option even more. Glover says workers are likely to be allowed to work remotely more frequently, and new tele-work offices are being considered for Northern Virginia, to ease the commute for those who live there once the headquarters moves across the Potomac River.

Army officials are said to be considering allowing Fort Monmouth workers the option to telecommute, should their jobs move as scheduled to Aberdeen in Harford County. The Asbury Park (N.J.) Press reported last week that an internal survey of employees found only 25 percent willing to move, but that 55 to 60 percent would stay with their jobs if given the option to work either from home or from a telecommuting center in New Jersey.

A spokesman for Fort Monmouth declined to release the survey, but did say the results indicated about 30 percent of workers would relocate. New Jersey politicians pressing to save the 90-year-old fort from closure contend high turnover would disrupt the critical defense work now being performed there.

Maryland state officials, who have projected that base realignment will bring up to 60,000 jobs and 28,000 households to Maryland, say they welcome anything that eases the move.

"We want to do whatever we can to help them accomplish their mission," said Mike Hayes, director of military and federal affairs with the state Department of Business and Economic Development.

But he and other officials acknowledge that uncertainty about how many people will move to Maryland or commute from out of state - or telecommute - complicates their planning for upgrades in highways, transit, schools and other facilities to serve the incoming population.

"We know our numbers are wrong. It's a matter of how wrong they are," said Richard E. Hall, state planning secretary.

There is historical precedent for base moves generating more commuting than growth, at least temporarily, Hayes pointed out. When Navy operations relocated to Patuxent Naval Air Station in Southern Maryland from Crystal City, Va., in the 1990s, many workers elected to commute from Virginia for the first several years.

But those workers have since retired, or quit, or moved to Maryland, Hayes said, and he predicted a similar shift with these moves.

"In time this will transition to a predominantly Maryland-based work force," he said. "It's going to take some time, perhaps, to get there."

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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