Feds eye workplace models of Google, Facebook

New federal personnel chief believes in telecommuting, interesting workplace designs

WASHINGTON -- 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 colors, 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% 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.

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 investigator 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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