Federal government closes but some employees work (and tweet) at home

Jeff Winkler Contributor
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It’s fairly easy to communicate just how bad the recent snowstorm has decimated the mid-Atlantic. Have you seen Alive?

In Baltimore, driving was banned. New York released all its children back into the wild. And no one was on the roads in D.C. except a few blizzard-beaten stragglers with cases of beer nestled like hens in their winter gloves.

More alarming, however, have been the headlines, like the one from the Los Angeles Times that read “Federal Government Closed.”

The government’s not open for business? Who flips the sign on that door, the president?

Actually, it’s John Berry, current director of the Office of Personnel Management. And while he did say it was an “honor” to make the call that essentially ground an entire city to a halt, he was clear on Monday that he does not make the decision by sticking his head out the window.

Calling in to Federal News Radio, Berry said that if the weather takes a turn for the worst, the Metropolitan Council of Governments “convene a conference call which involves all of the state, the cities, the local governments, the local governments,” as well as all local mass transit departments. “It’s over 100 people,” Berry said.

But closing the United States Government? Shutting down the infrastructure of the entire nation? After withstanding a Civil War, two world wars, the 1960s race riots, a Pokemon invasion and assaults from Eiffel 65, America is brought to its knees by … Frosty the Snowman?

No. According to Linda Springer, former director of OPM between 2005 and 2008, the country (and the government) is still very much operational.

“There’s a notion that the entire federal government is closed but really it’s that the government offices are closed in the metro D.C. area,” Springer told the Daily Caller. “About 85 percent of  [government’s civilian workforce] is located outside of that region.”

“People tend to translate that when the D.C. offices are closed the federal government isn’t operating and that isn’t so,” Springer said.

Working hard, hardly working or teleworking?

The government may be operating, but it’s also bleeding money. The OMB estimated that closing the Fed for one day cost $100 million dollar in lost productivity.

The solution — which the Christian Science Monitor, NBC and the Hill all reported on — is teleworking.

“I think you will see that after this storm passes, that lessons will be learned in regards to having more people utilizing telework,” Springer said.

Currently, only about 5 percent of federal staffers have telework agreements. It’s a figure that both Berry and Springer would like to see change.

“There is an increasing number of people who are working in a telework arrangement and this situation proves the concept that people can work remotely,” said Springer on Federal News Radio.

But more teleworking could spell trouble.

How is productivity affected when the air of professionalism inherent in any workplace has disappeared entirely? Casual comments made in an office environment are kept in check. Being isolated in a room with nothing but Twitter and GChat to keep one company, however, can be a dangerous combination — especially when Cabin Fever sets in.

If there are any doubts that teleworking during a disaster of natural proportions corrodes the routine civility many people expectantly offer and receive, watch the slideshow below. The following are actual tweets from almost a dozen high-level Federal employees.

Their 140 characters should serve as a warning (although a couple are encouraging). Things can get strange and ugly when the Federal Government shuts down: