Starting with a pilot program for 18 workers in 1997, the patent office has made telework an integral part of its culture for almost 8,000 employees.
The Patent and Trademark office got into telework early and now has nearly 8,000 employees who incorporate it into their work. (Stock image)
In 1997, 18 trademark-examining attorneys at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office became the basis for the federal government's first pilot program in telework, under the direction of USPTO attorney Deborah Cohn, who is now commissioner for trademark operations.
USPTO's IT staff set up the attorneys' home offices with equipment suitable for telework, and attorneys began working from home a few days per week. They shared office space when they worked at the USPTO headquarters and carried briefcases full of files as they shuttled between work and home.
There were complications and issues — this was the era of unreliable dial-up Internet and 56k modems — but within a year, the patent office followed the trademark office's lead and began its own one-day-per-week telework pilot.
In the past 16 years, telework has become a critical component of agency operations, said Danette Campbell, senior telework adviser at USPTO. Officials have conducted multiple pilot programs in response to legislation, federal initiatives or agency needs, and have developed individual telework strategies for various departments.
Today the agency has almost 8,000 employees who work remotely from one to five days per week, including 4,100 who do so four to five days per week and more than 1,000 who work far outside the commuting range of USPTO's Alexandria, Va., headquarters. And although there are undoubtedly still papers in some employees' briefcases, the agency's telecommute-friendly workflows are now entirely electronic.
USPTO's adoption of telework was a key factor in its ability to save 46,000 square feet in office space and millions of dollars in leasing costs by moving from Crystal City to a consolidated campus in Alexandria in 2005.
The agency has grown substantially since moving to the new space. The rising number of patent applications has fueled the demand for additional examiners, yet because of the telework programs, the agency has been able to increase the size of its workforce without adding office space.
In fact, USPTO's savings increase with each new full-time teleworker. Federal guidelines specify that employees at the GS-12 level or higher must have 150-square-foot offices (GS-12 and below share offices). But USPTO's full-time teleworkers do not have designated space at the agency's office, though they have the ability to reserve a work space when they do come into the office, a practice known as hoteling. That approach saves USPTO about $20 million annually in real estate costs.
"Telework at USPTO is a very carefully strategized business initiative," Campbell said. "We do pilots along the way to test the particulars of each pilot, and we continue to collect data throughout all pilot programs. We look at the technology, what worked, what didn't work, and we monitor programs past the pilot status. That's one of the reasons telework has been so successful here."
(Tele)working through the challenges
Teleworking isn't as easy as flipping a switch, even after 16 years.
Significant challenges remain in terms of security, training, and potential trust issues between remote employees and office-based managers. Campbell said individualized training has alleviated most of those concerns.
USPTO employees receive training based on their position, and it covers IT and non-IT issues. Campbell said managers also receive training to minimize the friction points between teleworking and non-teleworking employees.
In addition, future teleworkers at USPTO learn how to troubleshoot IT issues and operate programs such as WebEx, one of the videoconferencing tools USPTO employees use to communicate with one another. And they do all that before they attempt to work remotely. IT training also covers other tools that come with the teleworking territory: voice over IP, remote desktop sharing, video instant messaging and teleconferencing.
USPTO issues a standardized package of laptop, docking station and peripherals to every employee. After the appropriate training, teleworkers can take the computers home, but they are not allowed to use the laptops on public networks because of the proprietary nature of their work.
Other agencies have similar policies. Some teleworkers at the Agriculture Department may only use government-issued devices on the agency's virtual private network. Other employees who deal with less sensitive information have remote technology that "allows more flexibility in how and where the work gets done," said Mika Cross, work/life and wellness program manager at USDA's Office of Human Resources Management.
Security, she said, is tailored to the mission. "In USDA, we have options vetted, procured and approved for teleworking," Cross said. "It depends on the mission, agency CIO restrictions and what kind of equipment is available."
Among the toughest challenges for managers who are implementing telework initiatives are the size and mission diversity of the agency. USDA, for example, has more than 100,000 employees in 29 departments nationwide. What works for one department might not work for another. And simply getting the word out about telework opportunities can be challenging.
Cross said USDA's evangelizing has helped expand the use of telework. From food inspectors to firefighters, the number of USDA employees approved to telework jumped by 10,000 in 2012, and the number of those who actually telework has increased to more than 38 percent of eligible employees.
"Socializing the idea that even if you are eligible to conduct your annual training, routine administrative reports or some limited form of work from a remote location, you are in fact eligible [to telework] was a stretch," said Cross, adding that employees' misperceptions about telework also hinder the process.
The education efforts are worth it, she added. "With today's technology and USDA's mobility strategy, our teleworkers are able to perform their work seamlessly with the same level of customer service, availability, accessibility and accountability."
Feds warm up to telework
USPTO was doing telework before most federal agencies acknowledged its potential to cut costs, boost efficiency and retain talented employees. The agency's approach has become the gold standard for telework in the federal government, and it is on par with leading mobile innovators in the private sector.
In recent years, the rest of the government has begun exploring telework for three primary reasons: to comply with legislation, in particular the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010; to thoroughly exploit every penny-pinching measure possible as budgets dwindle; and to respond to the growing interest in mobile technology.
"We have seen tremendous increases across the board," said Cindy Auten, general manager of the Mobile Work Exchange. "When we look back to before 2010, there were only a handful of agencies leading implementation of telework."
By contrast, the organization's latest Telework Week in March, an annual effort that encourages public- and private-sector employees to telework at least once during that week, attracted 112,000 federal employees. That's only about 10 percent of the 1 million federal employees who are estimated to be eligible to telework, but it represents a huge jump in telework participation in the past three years.
"It's hard now to find an agency that doesn't have some form of telework or plan in place," Auten said. "Some agencies have been extremely aggressive with their programs over the past few years."
Just a few years ago, agencies aggressively exploring telework were rare. Now, successful examples abound:
- The Federal Emergency Management Agency dove into Telework Week with more than half of its 5,500 full-time employees trying telework for the first time in 2013. Telework is part of the agency's plans to consolidate space and close five of its eight buildings by 2016. That initiative will cut $9.1 million in annual leasing costs and another $530,000 per year in utility expenditures.
- In 2012, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services went from minimal teleworking — one telework day per pay period — to allowing almost its entire staff to telework up to three days per week.
- At the Interior Department's Office of Inspector General, a mobile program has expanded to allow 98 percent of its employees to telework, increasing telework hours by 500 percent compared to 2010.
- The General Services Administration moved its headquarters to downtown Washington, shedding half the office space for 3,300 employees in favor of a telework-friendly policy implemented by Administrator Dan Tangherlini. Teleworkers communicate with co-workers and bosses through instant messaging, Google Chat and email, and they reserve desk space when they need to come into the office. The savings in leased space is reportedly $24 million a year.
Better metrics build a better case
One of the biggest challenges about telework is tracking its returns. Although savings in real estate, for example, can be documented in hard numbers, tracking the productivity of an employee who teleworks compared to one who doesn't is not always straightforward.
At USDA, for example, leaders still struggle to measure the productivity of a huge customer-facing workforce, especially because attempting to do so could be futile given the diversity of work that takes place in the agency, Cross said.
In the private sector, CEO Melissa Mayer banned teleworking at Yahoo earlier this year because she believed teleworking employees were not as productive as their in-office counterparts and that communication and collaboration suffer when employees work remotely. Government leaders have the same concerns, and most agencies have not yet resolved them — in part because few have production metrics that are as specific and unambiguous as USPTOs'.
At USPTO, however, tracking productivity is relatively easy because most of its teleworkers are engaged in quantifiable work. Performance measures are based on the employee's position and experience level, and a trademark-examining attorney or patent examiner knows how many trademark applications or patents he or she must review on a biweekly basis.
Patent examiners and trademark-examining attorneys must demonstrate competence in the office for one to two years before they are allowed to telework. Even in departments where productivity is not easily measured, performance metrics for teleworkers and non-teleworkers are clearly defined. And performance measures are the same for teleworkers and in-office employees.
Those metrics are tracked over time, providing USPTO with hard numbers regarding the productivity of its employees. Since the early 2000s, when telework began to take shape at the agency, the productivity of individual patent examiners and trademark-examining attorneys has at least held steady.
"Our performance measures agencywide are very clearly defined," said Campbell, noting that telework is now integral to the agency's mission. "Those expectations are also very clearly defined and addressed prior to an individual participating in telework."
In 16 years, USPTO went from 18 teleworkers to close to 8,000. With the agency paving the way for telework success in the federal government, its peers have a clear model from which to craft their own strategies.
NEXT STORY: IT at risk