Creating the coolest workplace in the world

John Berry, who as head of U.S. Office of Personnel Management is responsible for the needs of 1.9 million federal workers, wants to improve the working conditions of government employees by increasing telecommuting and incorporating some of the best ideas in Silicon Valley to change the workplace atmosphere.

Appointed by President Obama, Berry is reaching out to high-tech firms — Google and Facebook in particular — for ideas on how to create office environments and working conditions that are more Silicon Valley and less federal cubicle.

Berry’s goal is to make the federal government “the model workplace for the country,” and believes that “most people would probably rate Google or Facebook as the coolest place to work or the best place to work.”

That is why he’s interested in learning from those two firms.

“When you are trying to take the title and you want to be the best you need to meet with the best and find out what they are doing that we’re not,” Berry told Computerworld.

Google and Facebook have posted many photos of their working environments that emphasize bright colours, eclectic and elastic designs, surrounded by seemingly designer office furniture.

Berry is interested in how these companies have designed their workplaces, especially in their ability to change the environments as needed. Their health and wellness programs are also of interest, he said.

Another key goal for Berry is improving telecommuting to help foster a greater work-life balance and improve the government’s attractiveness as an employer.

Telecommuting is already widely used at the Office of Personnel Management, or OPM.

The U.S. recently estimated that it has about 103,000 telecommuters or about 5.24 per cent of its workforce.

OPM may be one of the leaders in fostering this. Berry told attendees at a telework conference today that security-clearance background investigators, about 2,500 federal employees alone, are working remotely.

Berry believes telework improves productivity and credited it with helping the federal government reduce the time needed to conduct a security clearance investigation from about one year to 37 days.

When Hewlett-Packard Co.’s CIO Randall Mott pulled IT teleworkers back to the office in 2006, he said he was trying to foster better teamwork internally. HP was in the midst of a major IT overhaul, consolidating more than 85 data centers into six facilities.

Low productivity on collaborative projects was also the reason for Intel Corp.’s recent crackdown on IT teleworkers.  Intel’s move was not a change in policy, but rather a decision to enforce the rules around its existing policy, says Intel CIO Diane Bryant.

As part of a corporatewide efficiency review, Bryant found that lax application of those rules had allowed many IT workers to telecommute who didn’t closely fit the company’s three criteria.

These criteria are: that their job was appropriate for teleworking; that the employee was senior enough, mature enough and self-disciplined enough to work remotely; and that remote employees remained as productive in the telework arrangement as they were in the office.

That laxness in turn led to inefficiency, she says. The number of teleworkers in IT was low to begin with — only 250 out of 6,000, according to Bryant — but even so, most Intel IT jobs require a lot of collaboration.

The company found that breaking up projects among remote workers led to roughly a 20 per cent to 30 per cent drop in efficiency.

“There [was] a layer of inefficiency in fixing problems that would not [have been] there had the two people been sitting next to each together in the same building,” she says. So Intel started requiring more than half of those IT workers — 150 out of 250 — to report to the office at least four days a week.

Although Bryant is frank in her assessment of the current state of remote work — “telecommuting inhibits collaboration,” she says — she has high hopes that collaborative technologies such as videoconferencing and online social networks will improve in performance and decline in cost enough to enable broader teleworking in the future.

Fast processing of security clearances has been cited as an obstacle in hiring IT workers, who often need security clearances for employment.

The U.S. expects to hire nearly 12,000 IT professionals over the next three years.

These investigators look at law enforcement and other sensitive records, but federal officials believe that telecommuters can work on secure platforms.

“We have never had one security breach in this situation, we have not lost any information,” Berry said of telecommuting work.

In a separate interview, Aneesh Chopra, the federal CTO, said that secure telecommuting can be delivered, but the capabilities vary from department to department.

OPM has met its security concerns “but that does not mean every agency shares that same approach,” said Chopra, who said that nuances in operations, as well as the level of technical infrastructure available to the workers, differ at agencies.

“We are sensitive to the notion that security is a significant factor in determining what can and cannot be done in telework, but we are committed to work through it in a systematic way,” said Chopra.

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