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The Public Manager

Teleworking Thrives at U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

Telework programs at the Alexandria, Virginia, agency improved employee productivity and employee satisfaction while maintaining high levels of customer service and employee performance.

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When the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 was signed into law on December 9, 2010, the U. S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) already had established an award-winning telework program for its employees.

The agency has 16 percent (62) of its telework attorneys who reside more than 50 miles from Alexandria, Virginia, in 27 states. Eleven percent (751) of its telework patent examiners reside in 42 states.

"The USPTO telework programs directly affect our ability to recruit and retain a highly skilled workforce, align examination capacity with incoming workloads, maintain pendency metrics within acceptable limits, and have provided the unintended benefit of helping us reach our goals in domestic and education outreach, knowledge enhancement, and capacity building," David Kappos, undersecretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and director of USPTO, wrote in the USPTO 2011 Telework Annual Report.

As a leader in federal telework, the agency provided assistance in 2011 to more than 30 federal agencies interested in expanding or starting a telework program. Danette R. Campbell, senior advisor for telework in the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer at USPTO, recently answered questions about the agency's successful program.

Q: What made USPTO decide to implement the telework program? How long has it been going on?

A: In 1997, USPTO's trademark organization recognized a need to minimize office space and enhance work-life balance for employees. As a result, it initiated a telework pilot, which resulted in improved employee productivity and employee satisfaction, while maintaining high levels of customer service and employee performance.

USPTO started its first telework program in 1997 with 18 examining attorneys. There are now 411 trademark employees working from home four to five days per week and more than 141 working from home between one and three days per week. By saving space costs, maximizing productivity, and retaining the highest quality employees, the trademark organization continues to maintain an efficient and effective workforce that provides superior customer service to its clients.

The USPTO Patent organization continues to grow its telework program as well. It started its hoteling initiative—where employees relinquish their office space to work from home full time—in 2006, with a goal of 500 deployments each year. The patent office has met that goal each year since and currently has 3,207 employees who have relinquished their office space and are teleworking five days per week. It also has 2,287 employees who work from home between one and two days per week.

The USPTO's vision of telework is to provide a balanced work-life program for its employees while simultaneously advancing agency goals in productivity, efficiency, and space planning. Telework options are available to eligible positions in all USPTO business units. Our telework participants have increased flexibility, which helps translate to higher levels of productivity. Participating employees have demonstrated an improved work product as a result of fewer distractions when they work away from the office; fewer distractions also equate to better customer service.

Agency-wide, USPTO has 7,485 employees working from home between one and five days per week—equating to 86.67 percent of eligible positions. Our telework programs provide space and related cost savings and enable continuity of operations planning. Additionally, this telework option has helped position the agency as an employer of choice.

Q: How did USPTO get executive and employee buy-in?

A: We demonstrated the quantitative benefits of telework, including a positive impact on real estate, production, the environment, employee attrition, and transit subsidies.

Q: How did you implement the program—did you create a strategy first?

A: The USPTO has a strategic approach to developing its telework initiatives and believes that the following best practices help ensure a successful telework program roll-out:

  • start small
  • conduct pilot programs
  • determine return-on-investment
  • conduct training for participants and managers
  • ensure that policy and procedures are intact
  • partner with labor unions.

Q: Do employees use their own equipment?

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A: Generally, USPTO provides electronic equipment for its teleworkers. In March 2011, USPTO began updating its information technology (IT) systems with the deployment of universal laptops (UL). All employees were given a state-of-the-art computer with greatly increased power, processing speed, and stability. These laptops help ensure that telework is seamless for all employees as well as for our stakeholders.

All programs available when the employee is working on the USPTO campus are available when the employee uses the UL at home. The deployment of UL has proven to be a cost-effective means of supporting teleworkers and nonteleworkers alike. This model enables the agency to support its extensive telework program without duplicating equipment for teleworkers.

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Q: Were guidelines created for telework employees? What were some of those guidelines?

A: The USPTO has an enterprise-wide telework policy that includes scope, background, authorities, and definitions. Individual business units develop their telework guidelines and agreements (in partnership with our labor unions in business units where there are union employees).

Guidelines include, but are not limited to, information regarding employee eligibility and program requirements for participation and application. Business unit telework agreements may include information about selection and eligibility, program administration, and participating employee rights and responsibilities

Q: How do you keep telework employees engaged and feeling like they are part of a team?

A: Engagement with the remote workforce is accomplished through ongoing communication, which is enhanced by the use of USPTO collaboration tools, such as online meetings, video conferencing, instant messaging (IM), and document sharing. The agency regularly uses WebEx for meetings with teleworkers.

To further promote employee engagement, the trademark organization publishes an online magazine that highlights employees' activities and keeps teleworkers and nonteleworkers abreast of happenings in the organization; the patents organization distributes an online monthly newsletter.

Agency managers also promote engagement by holding virtual coffee breaks and lunches and regularly "touch base" with their full-time teleworking employees to ensure inclusion in team activities.

Q: Did you train managers and supervisors on how to successfully manage telework employees? If so, what were some of the key takeaways from the training?

A: Yes, we provide training for our managers. These discussions focus on communication, building an effective team, coaching for growth and success, giving rewards and recognition, and managing challenges associated with building effective teams consisting of onsite and remote workers.

Q: How do you measure success of the program? What are some of your metrics that you use to measure it?

A: Success is measured through real estate cost avoidance, employee performance metrics including productivity and quality, impact on transit subsidy, impact on environment, employee and customer satisfaction, employee attrition, and impact on sick or annual leave.

According to environmental data from the USPTO 2011 Annual Report, 3,464 teleworkers who work from home four to five days a week save $5,220,102 in gas per year and reduce emissions by 20,957 tons per year. More than 3,000 teleworkers who work from home one day a week save $1,033,824 in gas per year and reduce emissions by 4,150 tons per year.

Q: What are some lessons learned? What advice would you give an organization that is trying to implement this type of program?

A: In addition to the best practices mentioned previously, it is important to have standardized IT for teleworkers and nonteleworkers.

Also, create a centralized intranet site to house telework policy, business unit guidelines, information about ergonomics for the home office, frequently asked questions, agency or organization point of contact for telework issues, asset management, telework case studies, research, media coverage about telework, and the agency IT point(s) of contact.

Continue to monitor the telework program after it has been formalized. Like any business initiative, telework programs should not be static, but should change as agency strategic goals change.

About the Author

Paula Ketter is ATD's content strategist. Previously, she served as editor of ATD's periodicals.

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