Federal officials shut the government down as Hurricane Sandy crashed ashore late last month, but NOAA employee Holly Bamford remained hard at work.
While heavy rain and wind lashed her Silver Spring office, the National Ocean Service manager oversaw a massive real-time operation to monitor storm damage in coastal waterways — from debris in the Port of New York to shifting beaches on the Delmarva Peninsula — from the comfort and safety of her Montgomery County home.
The government's efforts to promote telecommuting — intended to trim costs, ease traffic congestion and improve worker satisfaction — are also boosting productivity during major storms.
"People assume when the government is closed, nothing is happening," said Bamford, the deputy assistant administrator of the National Ocean Service. "My experience has been when the government is closed all my meetings still take place."
About one-third of the region's federal employees continued to work after the government shuttered offices for two days in response to Sandy, according to an Office of Personnel Management estimate.
Out of 2.2 million federal workers nationwide, nearly 685,000 are eligible to work from home — at least occasionally, according to an OPM study released in June. Of those eligible, 168,558 reported telecommuting at some point in September 2011. That's up from about 114,000 in 2010.
Congress has asked departments to drive those numbers up. A 2010 law sponsored by Rep. John Sarbanes requires agencies to offer telework training to eligible federal employees and develop government-wide policies for working off-site.
An earlier storm that closed federal offices — the 2010 "Snowmageddon"— helped solidify support for the measure. It faced opposition from House Republicans who cited the cost of training employees and upgrading technology. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that the law will cost taxpayers $30 million over five years.
"Telework was an important tool to help mitigate the disruption caused by Hurricane Sandy," said Sarbanes, a Baltimore County Democrat. "A robust telework program will not only improve disaster planning for the government, it will reduce traffic congestion in the … region and improve quality of life and work satisfaction for valued employees."
OPM officials say concerns within some agencies about the potential for lost productivity and outdated technology have stymied the spread of telecommuting. Advocates hope the work that continued during Sandy, Snowmageddon and other storms will convince skeptics that more employees can work efficiently from home in good weather, too.
"Industry calls telework 'work,'" said Cindy Auten, general manager of Telework Exchange, an advocacy group funded by public and private organizations, including technology companies. "We have to build telework as a standard operating procedure."
With long-range forecasts predicting a particularly snowy winter in the region, federal agencies may have more opportunities to test their telework plans.
As a general rule, only employees who have previously agreed to unscheduled telework or those who happened to be scheduled to work from home on the day of a storm are required to telework when federal offices close, according to an email from OPM on Oct. 28, the day before Sandy made landfall.
But policies and participation vary by agency.
Only 21 percent of eligible Environmental Protection Agency employees worked remotely at some point in September of 2011, according to the OPM study. By contrast, nearly 90 percent of eligible employees at the Virginia-based Patent and Trademark Office have worked from home.
Like most federal employees, Bamford gets word of closings from the OPM website and internal agency emails. National Ocean Service workers use phone and video teleconferencing to conduct meetings as well as document-sharing software when they're not in the office, she said. Bamford spent about a day and a half at home during Sandy.
Bamford said she is often more efficient at home because she has time to digest meetings and is distracted less often. But she said the impromptu conversations that take place in her office or even the elevator help to improve communication and collaboration.
Rob Gutro, deputy news chief and meteorologist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, regularly works from home in good weather as well as when storms close the Greenbelt-based agency. One of Gutro's responsibilities is to update NASA's hurricane webpage, which provides the public with some of the same satellite imagery the National Hurricane Center uses in its forecasting.
Gutro, who lives in Bowie, said a big advantage of telework is avoiding the stress of the often ugly Washington-area morning commute. Another plus is that he is removed from typical office distractions, like the audible meetings that take place in a nearby conference room.
"In the office there's a lot of distraction," he said. "If you work in a cube farm you've got a lot of noise."
At home, Gutro said, "I'll put in 10-hour days and not even realize how much time has gone by."
Federal telecommuters in Md.
A look at telework participation of some Maryland-based agencies:
Agency//Percent eligible employees teleworking
Social Security Administration 5 percent
Census Bureau 25 percent
National Institute of Standards and Technology 21 percent
Consumer Product Safety Commission 64 percent
Source: Office of Personnel Management, based on teleworking in September 2011; Figure for Social Security Administration reflects the percentage of all employees.