Not so long ago, workers around Washington were stuck in the Dark Ages of office life.
They slogged through long commutes on traffic-choked highways.
Bad weather kept them from the office, and productivity took a hit. The region’s air quality suffered. The cost of office space edged up.
Then came telework. Employees in the private sector started firing up their computers at home more, some doing their jobs in their pajamas.
But in a federal government culture with a high premium on showing up at the office, telework has been slower to take off. About one in four federal employees whose jobs lend themselves to telework, actually do it. And more than half of those just one or two days a week.
The exception is the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, where Danette Campbell is the booster for a government work-at-home program that’s set the gold standard in a culture that has been pushed to change.
The agency issues patents to inventors and businesses and trademarks for products and intellectual property. But some employees step foot in the Alexandria headquarters just once or twice a year. Of 11,000 employees, 66.3 percent telework, mostly patent reviewers and trademark examining attorneys across the country. Almost 4,000 work from home four or five days a week. Compare that with 8 percent across the federal workforce.
The 2010 telework law requires every federal agency to have someone in Campbell’s role, but she’s the only full-time coordinator. Since she came in 2006, the number of teleworkers has tripled.
“Just because you’re working remotely doesn’t mean you’re not part of the agency,” she said, flashing a Cheshire cat smile. “It’s all about the end product.”
The Patent and Trademark Office is able to quantify that productivity. Experts in fields from engineering to physics review applications, sign off or not, then move on.
Campbell is one of five finalists for this year’s Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Management Excellence Medal. Director David Kappos cited her “contagious enthusiasm and incredible work ethic” in the nomination.
At 61, when many people are ending their careers, Campbell is in the heyday of her fourth. She has been an elementary school teacher, stay-at-home mom, internship coordinator for college students and now, work-at-home proselytizer.
Campbell’s mission as a GS-15 is to smooth the path from office to home. She sets up employees with laptops, webcams, videoconferencing software and gives them and their bosses training in how to stay in touch. More and more managers are teleworking, too.
Another big part of Campbell’s job is to collect statistics, some of which are encouraging. A report in February by the inspector general for the Department of Commerce, the patent office’s parent agency, called the telework program a “successful business strategy” that saves $17 million a year in office space costs.
The average teleworker spends 66.3 more hours a year examining patents than the average reviewer at headquarters, the report found. That translates to about 3.5 more patent reviews. Teleworkers also use less sick and administrative leave and spend less time on administrative tasks, the inspector general found.
All teleworkers sign a contract setting out the ground rules for working independently. In addition to having few or no distractions, and being more productive, telework eliminates the daily commute.
Campbell teleworks one day a week from her century-old home in La Plata.
“I’d rather not think about” a commute, she said, adding, “Working from home enables me to get online earlier and work later.”
The boost in efficiency also has a “small, but nonetheless positive effect” on reducing the office’s most stubborn problem, a backlog of 620,000 patent applications.
Telework is not for everyone. It can be isolating. Work and home life don’t always mix. But the Patent and Trademark Office is seeing its benefits: Faster work, better recruitment, savings in office space costs. And, advocates claim, better air quality with fewer cars on the road.
Elaine Ryan recalls Campbell’s first step into the new office culture in the late 1990s, running a federal telework program administered by the College of Southern Maryland.
“She’s shy and retiring,” Ryan, now provost of the college’s Graduate School USA, joked about Campbell.
Her former colleague, Ryan knows, is anything but. She’s a lively persuader.
“The idea is, ‘I’m not watching you right now, but you have a product you have to generate,’ ” Campbell said in her Alexandria office, where a malfunctioning webcam that loops teleworkers across the country into meetings was getting repaired. On her bookshelf sit titles such as “Managing the Telecommuting Employee” and “Managing the Mobile Workforce.”
The patent program started in 1997 as a pilot for 18 examining trademark attorneys around the country. Back then, telework was a scary word. But after a while, managers in Alexandria saw something astounding: The attorneys worked more. They were happier.
At the time, Campbell was in Southern Maryland, working with local officials and the General Services Administration on a novel effort to allow federal workers from the area to avoid commuting. They worked out of rented space near home — but not at home.
By today’s standards, the setup was crude. But there were conference rooms, desktops and high-speed internet service few employees had at home. They were called “telecommuting” centers.
Campbell calls it the “steppingstone” stage of telework.
“The local Chamber of Commerce said to me, ‘You know, Danette, this concept is never going to take off,’” she recalled. “ ‘Managers are never going to buy into it.’
“My whole argument was, ‘You wait and see. The technology is exploding.’ ”
The program did, too, but the challenge was clear.
“It was getting people to recognize their own mythology they’ve been living with,” Ryan said. “Just because you can see somebody at their desk doesn’t mean you know what they’re doing.”
Campbell had a touch for empathizing with their concerns, Ryan said, “then moving them to a different place.”
Campbell then took a job with the Council of Governments, where she pushed employers in the region to launch telework programs.
“It really was a sales job,” recalled Nick Ramfos, director of COG’s Commuter Connections program. “A behavior change is what you’re selling. You need a certain power of persuasion to get folks who are really skeptical to sign on. Danette was good at that.”
And the trademark program was noticing. Up in Alexandria, it was expanding to patent reviewers, who started giving up their offices. They “hoteled,” meaning that they had to book a desk when they came to headquarters. By 2006, 2,271 employees were working outside the office from one to five days a week.
“That’s when we realized we needed to have somebody to run this full time,” recalled Trademarks Commissioner Deborah Cohn.
The agency approached Campbell, who liked the idea of expanding one successful program for the federal government.
The biggest downside to telework is isolation, say Campbell and her colleagues. They’re working on solutions: lunches for employees who live near each other, other social events to keep them engaged. At meetings, everyone who needs to be there is webcasted in.
“I think that’s the biggest negative to telework,” Cohn said. “When you compare the negatives and positives, the positives come out ahead.”