A vote of confidence for USPTO telework

After questions were raised about a pioneering agency's productivity, an outside review suggests improvements -- but declares the telework program essentially sound.

Shutterstock image (by Tale): working on a digital tablet.

What: A National Academy of Public Administration review of telework at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. titled, “The United States Patent and Trademark Office: A Telework Internal Control and Program Review”

Why:  The USPTO has been experimenting with telework since 1997, and the majority of its workers now work remotely. Teleworking saves the USPTO an average of $26 million each year on real estate, transit, IT and other fixed costs, and improves the agency's ability to continue operations during an emergency. It also contributes to the recognition of the USPTO as one of the “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government.”

But while USPTO has been something of a poster child for government telework, the agency came under fire in 2014 for questionable productivity patterns among some patent examiners, and media reports of idle USPTO teleworkers sparked congressional calls for an investigation. USPTO subsequently asked the National Academy of Public Administration to review its telework practices.

That report, released July 31, concluded that USPTO telework policies are largely in line with those of other public- and private-sector organizations. The exception was that that, at every other organization studied, telework was considered a privilege that can be revoked. USPTO employees, once eligible for telework, are authorized to work off-site for the duration of their career with the agency. 

The report recommended replacing this telework-for-life arrangement with two-year reviewable contracts, but that will require USPTO to negotiate with its unions. Improved managerial tools, such as the ability for supervising patent examiners to call underperforming teleworkers back to the office and requiring teleworkers to specify the exact hours they will work each day instead of merely the total hours they plan to work, also were recommended. The authors also suggested that the agency use collaborative tools such as video teleconferencing more extensively, instead of relying so heavily on email.

Overall, however, no differences were found between teleworkers and non-teleworkers in performance and conduct. Productivity was also unaffected by teleworking, as there was no significant difference in production when looking at teleworkers and non-teleworkers in similar grade levels. 

Verbatim: “The Panel recommends that the USPTO should continue its Telework and Hoteling Programs, while enhancing the tools it uses in strengthening their management practices as recommended in the report.”