USPTO's telework program sets the bar

Rigorous training and performance metrics are the basis for its success and expansion

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s telework program is proof that success often begets success. Among USPTO’s 13  telework programs, its two major initiatives are the Trademark Work at Home Program and the Patent Hoteling Program. Both programs enable the agency to recruit and retain a qualified workforce without acquiring additional office space.

USPTO’s program is one of the shining stars in the federal telework arena, said Jennifer Thomas Alcott, program director of the NoCommute.org Telework Centers, part of the General Services Administration’s telework program.

“Their success is due to [USPTO officials’] highly structured approach to teleworking,” she said. “They know what they are going to do, they measure it and document the successes.”

Patent examiners who telework like the program so much that they work longer hours to make sure they get all their work done. “They want this program to be successful,” said Larry Schwartz, project team leader of the agency’s  telework program. “They don’t want it to disappear. It’s to their benefit to keep up with their work because that keeps the program running.”

The trademark telework program started about 10 years ago with 18 examining attorneys and has expanded to 220 attorneys who work from home four days a week.

On the patent side, about 500 examiners telework four days a week. When they come to the office, they use a hoteling space that has 270 desks. In the next five years, the agency will hire 500 additional teleworkers each year. By 2012, about 3,000 examiners will be teleworking, Schwartz said.

USPTO’S patent  specialists are high-bandwidth users, creating unique Internet-access needs for teleworkers.
“In order to get as close as we can to what they have on campus, we require either [high-speed] cable Internet or fiber optics,” Schwartz said.

The agency  requires teleworkers to use a minimum of
2 megabits/sec download speeds with an ability to upgrade in the future to 13 megabits/sec.

USPTO teleworkers must arrange for their own Internet service provider, but they are reimbursed for at least 50 percent of the cost.

“It would be difficult for us to maintain their ISP connections and work with ISPs throughout the country, so we have our users work with the ISPs,” Schwartz said. “We don’t get involved in that part of it.”

Given those requirements, USPTO officials carefully train teleworkers to set up and troubleshoot their equipment. They can correct some problems themselves, and when they call the help desk, they can speak intelligently about the problem, Schwartz said.

Teleworkers are given Dell Series C laptop PCs. “Everything you need is sitting in the data center at headquarters,” said Keith VanderBrink, an information technology specialist at USPTO’s Office of Technical Plans and Policy. Users are taught not to put any personal data on their laptops.

USPTO’s program illustrates that telework isn’t an all-or-nothing deal. The agency’s teleworkers are required to be at the agency’s Alexandria, Va., campus one day a week. That applies to trademark examiners who have chosen to live in Texas, Washington state, New York and Pennsylvania. In addition they must pay their own way to make the trip.

“That tells you how important the program is to them,” said Schwartz, adding that some travel to the office on Friday, stay for the weekend in Washington and report to the office on Monday to meet the one day per week requirement.

Teleworkers often use their on-campus time for face-to-face meetings. “What we’re finding is that the last thing anyone wants to do when they come back to headquarters is do what they can do at home,” VanderBrink said. “What they want to do at headquarters is meet with people. They don’t need a desk or computer to do that.”
In making the program work, the biggest hurdle isn’t technical: It’s helping managers cope with an out of sight, out of mind culture change, Schwartz said.

“Some managers have a difficult time getting over not seeing a person in his or her office,” he said. That shouldn’t make any difference, he added. “People can be sitting in their offices [at USPTO headquarters] and not be doing anything.”

The answer is to make certain that managers understand that in a results-oriented culture they don’t necessarily have to see their workers, Schwartz said. To help managers adjust, USPTO hired a contractor that provides training in change management.

The agency applies rigorous performance measures to its teleworkers, which is another way it tries to overcome managerial anxieties about employees working outside the office.
“At the end of every week, we know how many widgets every person put out,” Schwartz said. “Whether they’re at home or in the office, we know how much work they’ve done, down to the two or three decimal places.”

That’s one of the principal reasons that USPTO’s telework program is one of the most envied in government, said Danette Campbell, senior telework adviser at USPTO.

USPTO’s telework programs are a benchmark for other federal telework initiatives in the Washington metropolitan area, Campbell said, adding that the agency is successful because it starts small, measures performance, sets clear expectations for customer service, and provides technical training, tools and support.

“Our top-level management believes that telework is a flexibility that serves as a business strategy for our agency,” she said. “We believe that our employees can work anywhere, anytime.” 
Feds faster to adopt teleworkRecent surveys about federal telework haven’t been encouraging. For example, a study by the Federal Managers Association and the Telework Exchange found that management resistance still represents a major hurdle.

And in another poll, by Market Connections, most respondents said their managers don’t encourage the practice.

However, a new survey tells a different story. Federal agencies are beating the private sector in adopting telework through legislation, continuity-of-operations planning (COOP) and employee enthusiasm.

Government agencies have been encouraged to adopt telework more rapidly than private-sector companies with policy development and standards, according to a survey of 2,197 public- and private-sector employees by CDW Government, a technology adviser to federal, state and local government agencies. In 2000, Congress passed a law that required agencies to allow eligible employees to telework. Five years later, the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission relocated numerous Defense Department offices, which motivated many of the affected agencies to encourage teleworking so they could retain workers unwilling to move or commute further to work, said Robert Green, director of CDW-G’s civilian sales.

In addition, policies have eliminated excuses for federal managers to restrict teleworking. More than half of all federal employees are eligible to telework. In contrast, fewer than 16 percent of private-sector employees get the opportunity, the survey found.

“It was surprising to see that the private sector is so far behind,” Green said. “It isn’t a surprise that [telework] is growing in government, and with continuity of operations and things of that nature, the government is much more prepared to withstand disasters” than the private sector is.

In addition, agencies are ahead of the private sector in COO planning. The survey found that 75 percent of federal employees could continue working through telework if their offices closed because of man-made or natural disasters. Only 33 percent of private-sector employees voiced confidence in their companies’ abilities to function out of the
office.

In addition to policy development and COOP, agencies continue to update their technical IT support to better cater to teleworkers.

In the last two years, the percentage of agencies that have a plan in place to provide technical IT support to teleworkers rose to 58 percent from 33 percent.

Meanwhile, the survey highlighted three information technology hurdles for the federal government to clear: security, productivity and hardware/software requirements.

Green said the government is making sure agencies have the bandwidth and network access to support telework without slowing productivity, It is also updating help-desk support to address concerns about remote access. However, despite those efforts, security continues to be the main concern hindering telework growth, he added.

Federal employees said 64 percent of agencies are securing their networks through firewalls, but only 45 percent of them reported using encrypted networks for telework.

                                                                                       — Jana Cranmer
Cranmer is an intern with the 1105 Government Information Group.

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