Snowed in? Keep working!

The big winter storm that shut down many federal government operations in the District of Columbia didn’t hurt Mattress Giant Corp. That’s because of a company decision to make teleworking an essential part of its IT strategy.

“If we didn’t have it [teleworking] today, we’d be in a world of hurt,” said Steve Williams, vice president and CIO at the Dallas-based company, which has more than 250 stores, many in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region.

A sale isn’t completed until the goods are delivered, and with the storm shutting down roads and snarling deliveries, millions of dollars in sales were potentially at risk, Williams said. But Mattress Giant employees continued working from homes and hotels and kept customers in the loop.

“Even in a crisis situation, our people were still able to be productive and save sales,” said Williams.

Teleworking is gaining in acceptance and indeed is a must for many companies, particularly with the ongoing threat of terrorism, said experts. “It’s almost a dereliction of duty not to have” a teleworking plan, said John Edwards, president of Telework Analytics Inc., a Potomac Falls, Va., consulting firm.

The U.S. government has a telecommuting plan, but only 5 percent of the 1.8 million workers are telecommuting, a slight increase from 4.2 percent in 2001, according to a report sent to Congress two weeks ago by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM). There are 90,010 federal employees telecommuting at least one day a week, out of 625,313 eligible workers.

But telecommuting doesn’t necessarily keep the government operating. When federal agencies are closed, as they were Tuesday, telecommuters aren’t required to work any more than office workers are, according to the OPM’s closure policy. Nonetheless, some federal employees were indeed on the job, even if they couldn’t get to the office. One federal worker responded to an e-mail, and another employee’s office phone rang through to his home.

Despite the federal shutdown, an official at the U.S. General Services Administration said the storm is unlikely to speed up the adoption of telecommuting among government workers. “Maybe it will convince a few people” that they should telecommute more often, but until policy makers do more than encourage the practice, that won’t happen in a timely fashion, the official said.

IT security and management issues remain the top reasons why teleworking faces obstacles with the federal government. But while government managers are holding back, the private sector sees clear benefits.

Williams uses Expertcity Inc.’s remote-access servers to provide a secure connection to systems. The system from the Santa Barbara, Calif.-based company is easy for employees to use and didn’t require extensive training, he said.

Aside from meeting the company’s needs in a storm, Williams said, the move to telecommuting has helped improve the productivity of employees on the road and aided worker retention. One employee who provided critical services and was relocating, for instance, was able to continue working until a transition was complete. Teleworking, he said, “has had a positive impact on our business on many fronts.”

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