Suddenly it seems the most virtuous isn’t so righteous after all.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) has long been a leader in the use of telework for federal employees.
But PTO in recent days has become known for practices that make a mockery of the valuable and innovative tool that benefits workers, managers and customers — when used properly.
Citing a Commerce Department inspector general’s probe, my colleague Lisa Rein reported 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.
But is telework the culprit? Or is it bad management?
“These issues are symptoms of systematic management dysfunction when it comes to overseeing the output and performance of employees who are working remotely,” said Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-Va.), a sponsor of the Telework Improvement Act that promoted telework for federal employees.
Because the employees worked from home, telework gets a bad name. (Full disclosure: I’m teleworking from home as I write.) 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.
Zinser could not say how widespread telework problems are. He said supervisors are concerned that PTO does not use available tools to determine if there are telework productivity holes.
“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 staff to work outside the office. Some bosses have long been reluctant to allow telework. These cases provide fuel to the can’t-manage-what-you-can’t-see school of management.
“A good manager can manage remote employees as effectively as they manage employees who work outside [the manager’s] office,” Palguta said.
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 workers paid for time not worked 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.”
With the news about PTO’s telework program, it’s easy to forget how successful it has been. It won a dozen awards from 2001 through 2010. Teleworking contributed to PTO’s first-place ranking, out of 300 agencies, in the Partnership for Public Service’s “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” 2013 list and specifically to its eighth place for work-life balance.
Even a 2012 IG audit said PTO’s largest telework program “is succeeding as a business strategy.”
The IG found that PTO teleworkers “spend more time examining applications because they use less sick and administrative leave and charge less time to administrative tasks. As a result, the average . . . participant spends 66.3 more hours a year examining patents than does the average in-house examiner.”
Note to skeptics: That’s more than an extra week of work.
Todd Elmer, PTO’s chief communications officer, called the telework program “a proven success story.” Improvements have been implemented, he added, including “steps taken to improve supervision of patent examiners.”
Not a minute too soon.
Robert D. Budens, president of the Patent Office Professional Association, said the controversy about workless paralegals has nothing to do with the location of the workers. “It’s not a telework issue,” he said. “It’s a management failure-to-assign-work issue.”
Yet managers who don’t like telework will feel validated by reports of teleworkers not working.
“My fear is that some managers will look at the current controversy as justification for their opposition to telework,” Palguta said. “I think in some cases, however, managers who are not well-organized or who are not skilled at assessing the adequacy of the work product of their employees are simply making excuses.”