The Washington Post

Bad management gives telework a bad name

Suddenly, it seems the most virtuous soul  isn’t so righteous afterall.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) has long been a leader in the use of telework for federal employees. But the agency recent days also has become known for practices that make a mockery of the valuable and innovative tool that  has benefits for workers, managers and customers — when used properly.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria, Va. (AP/Alex Brandon)

Citing a Commerce Department inspector general’s probe,  my colleague Lisa Rein reported this month that  PTO paralegals surfed the Internet, watched television, exercised and did laundry while they should have been teleworking.

They had too little work to do. Inspector General (IG) Todd Zinser called it “a complete breakdown of management.”

Taxpayers have a right to be angry about that.

But is telework the culprit? Or is it bad management?

Because these employees worked from home, telework (full disclosure: I’m teleworking from home as I write) gets a bad name. The real issue, however,  is what work gets done, not where the work is done. Good managers make sure the work gets done in or out of the office.

“Like anything else, if it’s not well managed things can go wrong and you can have problems,” said John Palguta, a vice president of the Partnership for Public Service, which studies federal workplace issues. “You can have folks in the office down the hall from the supervisor, surfing the Internet and not being productive.”

Nonetheless, reports of goofing-off teleworkers can hurt the effort to make Uncle Sam’s shop more nimble and more productive by allowing his staff to work outside of the office.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), long a proponent of telework, was so angered by a related article Lisa published this week that he said, “Employees that have been abusing telework and committing time fraud should be fired today.”

His letter to Penny Pritzker, secretary of the Commerce Department, which includes PTO, said agency managers who sought to hide information about telework abuse also should be fired. “If the [Justice] department determines criminal fraud has occurred,” he added, those responsible “should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”

Todd Elmer, PTO’s chief communications officer, called the  telework program “a proven success story.” He cited a 2012 IG audit that said the program “is succeeding as a business strategy.”

“But even with proven success stories, the USPTO is always looking for ways to continue improving the management of its workforce and improve the efficiency and effectiveness of its operations,” he added.

Elmer said program improvements have been implemented, including “steps taken to improve supervision of patent examiners.”

Read more in the Federal Diary online Tuesday night and in Wednesday’s print editions of The Washington Post.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about federal government and workplace issues that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns.



Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Show Comments
Most Read



Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Your Three. Videos curated for you.
Play Videos
Deaf banjo player teaches thousands
Unconventional warfare with a side of ale
It's in the details: Five ways to enhance your kitchen makeover
Play Videos
Drawing as an act of defiance
A fighter pilot helmet with 360 degrees of sky
Border collies: A 'mouse trap' for geese on the National Mall
Play Videos
Bao: The signature dish of San Francisco
This man's job is binge-watching for Netflix
What you need to know about Planned Parenthood
Play Videos
How to save and spend money at college
Pandas, from birth to milk to mom
Europe's migrant crisis, explained
Next Story
Josh Hicks · August 12, 2014

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.