Federal Telework: Additional Controls Could Strengthen Telework Program Compliance and Data Reporting
How are federal agencies managing their 400,000+ teleworkers?
The 4 agencies we reviewed (Ed, GSA, Labor & SEC) generally met the reporting requirements in the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010. However we found some barriers to telework program success:
Training timing: Managers may make telework decisions before training.
Documentation: Agencies may not review telework agreements annually or document renewals.
Managerial resistance: Some supervisors discourage telework despite agency participation goals.
Separately, we also found OPM and some agencies had quality problems with their telework data, which we made recommendations to address.
Total Telework Hours at Four Agencies per Pay Period, for Pay Periods Ending October 3, 2015-June 11, 2016
Note: An earlier version of this summary featured an alternative figure.
Total telework hours at four agencies for pay periods ending October 3, 2015 through June 11, 2016.
What GAO Found
The telework policies at four selected case study agencies GAO reviewed met select requirements of the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 (the act) for telework eligibility and agreements. These agencies followed similar processes for approving telework agreements. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) guidance recommends managers complete telework training prior to approving telework agreements, but three of the four agencies did not have a mechanism to help ensure managers have completed this training before approving employee telework agreements. Because managers in these agencies may not have completed the training before entering into agreements, they may not be familiar with telework policies. Further, three of the four agencies did not require a periodic documented review of telework agreements. By not requiring regular review of telework agreements, these agencies cannot be assured that the agreements reflect and support their current business needs. Consistent with the act, all four agencies described efforts to encourage telework participation and provide for the technology to enable it. However, GAO's focus groups with teleworkers provided some examples of how supervisors may discourage telework participation and reported that some level of managerial resistance to telework remains. Managerial resistance to telework can undermine reviewed agencies' ability to meet telework participation goals. In its leadership role for telework matters, OPM can assist agencies with tools to assess and resolve these types of concerns.
Consistent with the act, all four case study agencies have controls to help ensure that telework does not diminish employee and organizational performance. These four agencies' policies followed the act's requirement that teleworkers be treated the same as nonteleworkers for the purposes of work requirements, performance appraisals, and other managerial decisions. Agency officials and focus groups reported that telework status did not impact performance expectations. Focus groups with supervisors described numerous strategies and resources they use to supervise and stay connected with teleworking employees.
The four agencies used varied methods to collect and report telework data to be included in OPM's annual telework reports, but all cited challenges to ensuring that employee-reported telework data were accurate because employees may not know or follow policies for recording telework. While three of these agencies use electronic systems to track telework agreements, the Department of Labor (Labor) uses a manual system which limits its ability to access accurate, real-time telework agreement data that management uses to assess compliance and for resource allocation decisions. Further, GAO found that the Department of Education (Education) had not been reporting telework eligibility data compliant with the act. OPM also faced challenges in reporting accurate agency telework data and GAO identified errors in OPM's annual reports to Congress. For example, OPM's report cited Education's fiscal year 2016 telework participation goal as 5 percent, reflecting Education's goal for increasing its participation rate, instead of its overall participation goal of 90 percent. OPM may be missing opportunities to improve its data because it does not always follow up with agencies on significant data differences or outliers. The errors and invalid data in OPM's annual reports to Congress reduce the usefulness of these reports.
Why GAO Did This Study
The Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 required agencies to develop telework policies and OPM to provide guidance and report on telework use, among other things. GAO was asked to review agency telework programs.
This report examines (1) how selected agencies comply with the act's requirements, (2) the internal controls affecting federal supervisors' ability to hold teleworkers accountable for achieving results, and (3) the challenges selected agencies and OPM face in collecting and reporting telework data. GAO selected four case study agencies for review—Education, General Services Administration, Labor, and Securities and Exchange Commission—based on agency size and telework participation rates. GAO reviewed OPM guidance and reports, and policies and data at case study agencies. GAO also interviewed OPM and case study agency officials and held focus groups with case study agency supervisors and teleworkers.
GAO makes recommendations to each of the case study agencies, including ensuring supervisors complete telework training in a timely manner and improving telework data. GAO also recommends that OPM develop tools to help agencies assess telework barriers, and to improve telework data reported to Congress. Three agencies agreed with the recommendations. One did not comment. OPM disagreed with GAO's recommendations citing limited resources to expend on efforts not specifically required under the act. GAO maintains that OPM should implement these actions as discussed in the report.
Recommendations for Executive Action
|Department of Education||To support the consistent application of agency telework policy throughout the agency, the Secretaries of the Departments of Education and Labor and the Chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission should implement controls to verify that supervisors have completed telework training prior to entering into telework agreements with their employees and that completion of this training is documented.||
On October 1, 2018. the Department of Education updated its Telework Program policy to require that supervisors complete annual supervisors telework training before entering into telework agreements with employees. When supervisors approve telework agreements, the Department of Education's Telework Coordinator verifies that the supervisor has taken the training by reviewing the monthly telework training completion roster prior to finalizing telework agreements. If a supervisor has not taken the required training, the telework agreement is returned to the supervisor along with a request for them to complete the training and submit a copy of the training completion certificate.
|Department of Labor||To support the consistent application of agency telework policy throughout the agency, the Secretaries of the Departments of Education and Labor and the Chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission should implement controls to verify that supervisors have completed telework training prior to entering into telework agreements with their employees and that completion of this training is documented.||
In a letter to GAO dated May 26, 2017, the Department of Labor stated that the department currently offers interactive manager/supervisor telework training to all supervisors, the completion of which is documented in the manager and supervisor training records. However, officials said this training was strongly encouraged but not required. In fiscal year 2019, telework training was added as a mandatory course for all managers and supervisors, the completion of which was documented in manager and supervisor training records and reported to departmental leadership. On March 21, 2022, the Department of Labor launched TeleworkXpress, a new automated telework system agreement management system. Labor officials provided documentation of how TeleworkXpress requires supervisors to complete telework training before they can use the system to review and approve telework agreements.
|United States Securities and Exchange Commission||To support the consistent application of agency telework policy throughout the agency, the Secretaries of the Departments of Education and Labor and the Chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission should implement controls to verify that supervisors have completed telework training prior to entering into telework agreements with their employees and that completion of this training is documented.||
In May 2017, SEC changed its requirement for telework training to require employees and managers to complete telework training within two weeks of hire or movement into a supervisory role. Completion of this training is documented in SEC's Learning Management System, and SEC management can generate reports to identify and follow up with individuals who have not met their training requirement. Further, the collective bargaining agreement SEC entered into with the employee union requires supervisors to complete telework training prior to having employees telework.
|Department of Labor||To help ensure that telework agreements accurately reflect telework participation, and to further ensure the accuracy of telework data reported internally and externally, the Secretary of the Department of Labor, the Administrator of the General Services Administration, and the Chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission should require documentation of regular or periodic reviews of all telework agreements in agency telework policies.||
In a letter to GAO dated May 26, 2017, the Department of Labor stated that the policy at the time required supervisors to conduct an annual review of telework agreements to ensure the arrangement is current and the needs of the agency were being met. In October 2019, Department of Labor officials stated the department was revising its telework processes to include a defined procedure for managers/supervisors to document and report the annual reviews. On March 21, 2022, the Department of Labor launched TeleworkXpress, an automated telework agreement management system that requires supervisors to review and renew all active telework agreements for their staff annually for the agreements to remain active in the system. All employees participating in telework as of May 3, 2022, were required to establish new telework agreements in TeleworkXpress, which the Department of Labor considered to be the first annual certification period. Labor officials provided documentation of the policy requirement for annual recertification of telework agreements in TeleworkXpress going forward.
|General Services Administration||To help ensure that telework agreements accurately reflect telework participation, and to further ensure the accuracy of telework data reported internally and externally, the Secretary of the Department of Labor, the Administrator of the General Services Administration, and the Chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission should require documentation of regular or periodic reviews of all telework agreements in agency telework policies.||
On June 29, 2018, GSA updated its Workforce Mobility and Telework Policy to include a requirement for an annual review and recertification of telework agreements. The policy states that telework agreements must reflect a current agreement between the employee and his or her supervisor. It also states that annual telework agreements must be submitted and approved in the GSA-approved telework agreement system in alignment with performance appraisal completion. The policy also encourages supervisors to review telework participation and frequency at mid-year performance reviews. Having these periodic and documented reviews will help ensure GSA has updated and accurate telework data.
|United States Securities and Exchange Commission||To help ensure that telework agreements accurately reflect telework participation, and to further ensure the accuracy of telework data reported internally and externally, the Secretary of the Department of Labor, the Administrator of the General Services Administration, and the Chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission should require documentation of regular or periodic reviews of all telework agreements in agency telework policies.||
Between October, 2017 and April 2019, SEC developed, tested, and implemented a change to its telework agreement system that automatically notifies employees to review and recertify their telework agreement annually. The telework agreement system documents these annual updates.
|Department of Labor||To improve the accuracy of telework data transmitted to OPM, the Secretary of the Department of Labor should direct the Chief Human Capital Officer to work with the Telework Managing Officer to develop and implement a plan to modernize Labor's telework agreement tracking system to enable more timely access to accurate telework data.||
In a letter to GAO dated May 26, 2017, the Department of Labor stated that it will benchmark best practices used by other federal agencies to explore options for utilizing its existing telework agreement tracking system to facilitate more timely access to telework agreement data. On March 21, 2022, the Department of Labor launched TeleworkXpress, an automated telework agreement management system. According to Department of Labor officials as well as documentation we reviewed, TeleworkXpress simplifies the process for establishing, reviewing, and maintaining telework agreements and provides more timely access to telework agreement data. TeleworkXpress requires all telework agreements to be managed within the electronic system and Labor is no longer accepting paper telework forms.
|Department of Education||To help ensure the employee eligibility data transmitted to OPM comport with what OPM is required to report under the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 and accurately reflect the current number of employees eligible to telework, the Secretary of the Department of Education should direct the Telework Managing Officer to take the steps necessary to regularly update employees' eligibility status.||
In a letter dated May 18, 2017, a Department of Education official stated that the department concurs with the recommendation and notes that the Telework Managing Officer has already taken the necessary steps to regularly update employees' eligibility status for reporting purposes under the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010. The letter further states that the Department reported these updated numbers in the fiscal year 2017 Telework Data Call. We reviewed the fiscal year 2016, 2017, and 2018 telework participation and eligibility data the Department sent to OPM for the annual telework data calls and confirmed that these data are being updated regularly and the Department of Education is no longer reporting static data.
|Office of Personnel Management||To provide additional guidance to agencies and encourage the elimination of barriers to increased telework opportunities consistent with the act, and to ensure the accuracy of telework information OPM annually reports to Congress, the Director of OPM should develop tools to help agencies assess and analyze persistent barriers to telework, including managerial resistance, such as a survey or other feedback mechanism.||
In 2017, OPM administered the first Governmentwide Federal Work-Life Survey. This survey included questions about a number of work-life programs, including telework, to help identify common barriers to participation in telework, including managerial resistance. Specifically, the survey discussed supervisory perceptions of employees' reported telework participation outcomes, supervisors' confidence to effectively manage telework performance, and key drivers for telework approvals and denials. The governmentwide results of this survey were made available on OPM's web site. Further, according to OPM officials, each Chief Human Capital Officer Council represented agency received an individual report, and those that had components with a population over 5,000 employees received a report for each of those components, for a total of 101 individual reports. OPM also developed and distributed a video tutorial for agencies to use to help them analyze their results.
|Office of Personnel Management||To provide additional guidance to agencies and encourage the elimination of barriers to increased telework opportunities consistent with the act, and to ensure the accuracy of telework information OPM annually reports to Congress, the Director of OPM should strengthen controls for reviewing, validating, and reporting telework data in annual Status of Telework in the Federal Government reports. Specifically, OPM should follow up with agency officials on data outliers, including significant changes in year-to-year data.||
In a letter dated May 16, 2017, the acting director of OPM stated that OPM did not agree with the recommendation. While OPM recognizes the importance of data accuracy to effectively evaluate federal telework programs, OPM does not agree that the Telework Enhancement Act imposes any obligation on OPM to allocate significant resources necessary to validate telework data collected from agencies or that a year-over-year comparison of survey data is needed or advantageous to ensuring a reasonable and rigorous data analysis. In December 2020 and again in September 2021, OPM officials told us the agency continues to not concur with the recommendation, saying its processes provide agencies with opportunities to correct their own data. We agree that OPM should not independently validate agency data, but OPM should take the steps necessary to identify and explain data outliers and limitations that agencies otherwise do not identify. Because OPM is the agency responsible for reporting telework data, OPM should ensure its annual reports to Congress include a clear discussion of data reliability limitations. Following up on data outliers and large year-to-year changes can help OPM identify data errors that could be corrected by agencies and provide OPM with the opportunity to discuss data limitations with agencies. Including such information clearly in the annual telework reports to Congress can make them more useful to Congress and to others. If we confirm that OPM has taken action in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.