Will data loss incident limit telework and virtual teams in government?

By now, we have all heard about the theft of computer equipment from the home of a Veterans Affairs employee that resulted in the loss of the personal information of millions of people. The VA employee was apparently not authorized for telework and had not followed agency security protocols. Still, in response, the VA recently announced steps to restrict telework and eliminate the use of personal computers for VA work by employees.

Telework by government workers has been promoted as a way for agencies to keep operating during emergencies and as a means of easing commuter traffic in the Washington D.C. area. More broadly, telecommuting advocates argue that some employees, knowledge workers in particular, can be happier and more productive when they have flexibility regarding when and where they perform work assignments. Couple these benefits with increased use of virtual teams, in which team members collaborate from multiple locations, and telework has been steadily increasing in certain sectors, including some government agencies.

The trend toward more telecommuting is now facing serious hurdles. As discussed here, government telecommuters continue to face obstacles beyond data security issues, including concerns about managing an offsite workforce and questions about the cost of home office supplies and equipment. Further, Jeffery Phillips’ recent post identified three other potential problems that can affect telecommuting both in the public or private sectors.

There are, however, several significant downsides to telecommuting. They are: isolation, time-shifting and absence of grooming.

Additionally, this NYT article suggests that many workers who are allowed to telework choose not to because they prefer face-to-face interactions with co-workers and teammates. Finally, HP has announced changes to its telecommuting practices, largely because of concerns about productivity, bringing into the office some workers who had previously been allowed to work at home.

Some of the potential disadvantages of telecommuting do not hold for workers participating in virtual teams. While there are certainly gains to be had from having workers in the same office, these gains cannot be achieved when team members are dispersed across the country, or globe. Because members of many virtual teams rarely see each other in person, they must develop other ways to develop comaraderie, ensure effective teamwork, evaluate performance, and “groom” team members for new jobs.

Having said that, the VA data loss incident could be a serious blow for telecommuting in the public sector. To the extent that certain jobs dealing with sensitive data are deemed unsuitable for offsite work, the pool of potential teleworkers will could be decreased. Further, these decreases could be chiefly among knowledge workers, the largest pool of workers for which telecommuting makes sense. What, if any, effect changes in telework would have on the use of virtual teams in the public sector in even less clear.

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