Pope Francis rolled into town Tuesday afternoon, with a schedule for the subsequent two days that involved multiple events in downtown DC, so Federal bureaucrats did what we do best: panic. The guidance from OPM was to treat the event like a major snowstorm, so we did, and, by and large, stayed home. I worked from home on Wednesday, only to see Metro announce an unusually high vacancy rate in their parking garages and ridership roughly 20% below that of the previous Wednesday.
Thursday I needed to be in the office, and the Pope’s schedule, while bringing him closer to my office than the day before - addressing Congress at 9:30 a.m. -, seemed to involve fewer events for fewer people than on Wednesday, so I took my chances with Metro. Ridership was again light, and attendance at the office was again down considerably, so the day passed reasonably uneventfully, for which I was grateful.
My office overlooks Pennsylvania Avenue, so I did take a half hour to watch out the window as a small crowd gathered on the sidewalks below, anticipating the Pope’s return from the Capitol. Sure enough, flanked by more than a dozen police motorcycles, police cars, and unmarked black Chevy Suburbans, the Fiat 500 drove up the street.
In general, I have mixed feelings about telework. For Pope Days (or snow days), telework is a great way of allowing people to get work done when the alternative is taking the day off, so having the ability to work at home is great. Regular telework, though, takes people out of the office and makes interacting with colleagues more difficult. Today I had a number of instances where I needed to talk to someone and had to figure out if that person was in the office or at home and, if the latter, if it made sense to email the question, find a home number, or just wait for a more convenient time in the office. On Wednesday, I managed to get some work done, primarily by scheduling a report draft to be delivered that morning so I could edit it and provide comments by the afternoon. It’s great to avoid the time-consuming and energy-sapping commute, but I’d be hard-pressed to argue that I was more productive overall.
Yet the government is making a big push to have workers telework more. For some jobs, particularly those that do not require much personal interaction, that makes sense. For many others, however, the costs can be quite high. The benefits accrue mainly to the employees. We’re told that telework can lower costs for the agency, but it’s hard to see where. The agency has to provide more equipment (network infrastructure, portable computers rather than less-expensive desktops). The goal seems to be to reduce the number of square feet the government leases, mainly by eliminating private offices, but for that to work nearly everyone in the agency needs to be working from home most of the time. (For example, I’m told that at the Government Services Administration headquarters they’ve eliminated offices and insisted everyone work in large rooms at a random desk, with a small locker available for personal items. Most employees telework three to five days a week, allowing the agency to reduce space by more than half. In contrast, someone at my agency working at home one day a week still keeps an office, and few work at home more than one day a week, so the agency hasn’t saved anything on office space, as far as I can tell.)
I also suspect that if I had to stare at my walls and not talk to anyone for days on end I would go raving mad. Perhaps I already have and just haven’t yet noticed it.