Teleworkers keep government open during snowstorms

As heavy snow shut down businesses and federal offices again this month, liberated workers tweeted about sipping hot cocoa, lying under blankets and bingeing on "House of Cards."

But Edwin Gotico spent the day reading and responding to emails and updating status reports as a realty specialist for a General Services Administration contractor.

Gotico, who lives in Springfield, Va., is one of the growing number of employees the federal government encourages to work from home.

Before he was allowed to work from home, Gotico, like most federal teleworkers, had to sign a contract that requires him to work during weather events that cause managers to shutter offices and give workers there the day off.

That requirement has allowed the government to maintain a level of productivity through snow days this winter.

"That's one benefit of teleworking," Gotico said.

The March 3 snowstorm came at the perfect time for boosters of telework: the start of Telework Week 2014.

Telework Week is sponsored by Mobile Work Exchange, a public-private partnership that promotes working from home to improve productivity and morale while cutting down on commuting and the costs of renting office space and utilities.

Federal agencies encouraged employees to work from home during Telework Week. Mobile Work Exchange said more than 163,000 workers had pledged to do so, saving an estimated $14 million on commuting costs.

"People have been joking on Twitter where we had a deal worked out with Mother Nature," said Cindy Auten, general manager of Mobile Work Exchange.

It was, in fact, the giant snowstorm in 2010 that was the impetus for the federal government to push more employees to work from home. The federal government lost $100 million a day during "Snowmageddon," Auten said, a figure that would have increased by $30 million if not for the number of teleworkers already in service.

About 10 percent of all federal employees worked from home in 2010. Since then, the proportion has grown to 30 percent. About 1 million federal workers and contractors are eligible to telework.

Global Workplace Analytics and the Telework Research Network, a research and consulting group, estimated that teleworking employees saved the federal government $32 million in productivity losses during this winter's four snow days.

That's $2 million more than the $30 million the Congressional Budget Office estimated in 2010 that it would cost over five years to implement telework capabilities across all federal agencies, said Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics.

Besides saving money, federal agencies said, telework helped save time after the snowstorm, easing the transition back to a normal work schedule and reducing the workload that awaited employees when offices reopened.

Telework also helps employees in the D.C. area continue communicating with offices unaffected by local weather and making progress on projects.

"When there's an unscheduled event," said Mika J. Cross, "telework enables our department to continue delivering services to the American people."

Cross, a work, life and wellness program manager for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, estimated that more than 30 percent of that department's employees already telework.

Gotico began working from home in 2012 when the GSA began promoting the idea. He works from home two to three days a week and estimates he saves about three hours a day in commuting time.

"I thought it was a great idea," he said. "The traffic is horrendous around the D.C. area. … I'm actually more productive and I do more work at home than I do at my office."

What's lost, of course, is the ability to enjoy a snow day. But Gotico said he willingly trades those opportunities to be closer to his boys, who are ages 5 and 3.

"I would still take this over not being able to telework and having to commute an hour and a half into work," he said.

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