US agency: Telecommuting offers many advantages

Grant Gross
PC World
Thursday, March 22, 2007; 12:32 AM

The offer of telecommuting has helped the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) retain and recruit workers as well as reduce commuting complaints and ensure continuity of operations if there's ever a major disaster, agency leaders said.

"We believe our employees can work any time, anywhere," said Danette Campbell, senior telework advisor at USPTO, speaking at the FOSE IT-in-government trade show in Washington, D.C.

The USPTO began offering telework 10 years ago, largely for work-life balance issues, she said. But the agency has expanded the program in recent years, and has seen several advantages, she added. Several employees have stayed with the agency because they can telecommute and others have left Fortune 500 companies to join USPTO because they could telework.

The agency now has 13 telecommuting programs, with about 220 trademark examiners and 600 patent examiners teleworking in the two largest programs, Campbell said. The agency plans to add 500 patent examiners a year to its tele-workforce over the next five years.

In addition to making employees happy, the telework programs at USPTO fulfill continuity-of-operation requirements for federal agencies, added Keith Vanderbrink, an IT specialist at USPTO. While other agencies have varying commitments to teleworking, USPTO knows it meets its requirements that employees can work for six months offsite if needed, he said.

The agency's commitment to telecommuting has presented some technical challenges, but the agency has found software and hardware to solve those problems, Vanderbrink said.

The agency gives interchangeable Dell Inc. laptops to employees. If a laptop breaks, the employee can mail it or drop it off and immediately exchange it for another laptop just like it, he said. The agency uses a VPN (virtual private network) for connectivity, but has its employees line up a broadband service provider. Telecommuters use a standard router and a standard desktop environment including Microsoft Corp.'s Windows XP.

Because of bandwidth requirements, patent examiners are required to have broadband with a 2M bps (bits per second) download rate, leaving DSLs (Digital Subscriber Lines) out of the mix. Employees can be reimbursed for their broadband connections, based on how much of it they use for work.

USPTO also requires examiners to come to the agency's Alexandria, Virginia, office one day a week, said Larry Schwartz, team leader of the patent telework program. But employees can live anywhere in the continental U.S., and employees live as far away as Texas and Washington state, often coming in twice a month and spending a Friday and Monday in the office.

The agency saves a large amount of money on real estate with the telework programs, Vanderbrink added. While USPTO hasn't fully calculated those savings yet, the patent program hired 1,200 examiners in the past year without signing a new lease, he said. "That'd fill an entire 10-story office building," Vanderbrink said.

The agency maintains 270 desks for teleworkers to use when they come to the office, but those desks aren't in great demand, Vanderbrink added. Most of the time, employees use their in-office time for meeting with other employees or with managers.

"They don't need a desk for that," he said. "The last thing that anyone wants to do when they come into headquarters is do what they could at home," he said.

© 2007 PC World Communications, Inc. All rights reserved