The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) continues to push the telework envelope, announcing in July the establishment of a formal program that allows some of its Patent managers to telework on a full-time basis. These employees oversee not only other remote workers, but also those who continue to work in USPTO offices.
“This program is designed to help the USPTO retain highly-skilled and qualified managers who otherwise might have returned to production-level jobs where full-time telework programs are available,” explains Danette Campbell, the agency’s senior adviser for telework. “We also believe this alternative work arrangement will give us an increased ability to make management more attractive to our current teleworking workforce.”
The establishment of a permanent program comes on the heels of a successful six-month pilot project held during 2012. Approximately 100 volunteer Patent managers who met certain criteria participated. “The pilot was very successful and definitely met our expectations,” says Campbell. “We found the majority of our participants were able to manage effectively in a remote environment.”
According to Campbell, USPTO management came up with the idea for the original pilot to test the ability of front-line managers to telework full-time as one of many strategies that would help retain managers who were already managing full-time teleworkers and non-teleworkers in their technology centers. Patent Directors Wynn Coggins and Angie Sykes led the team, along with other team members Mike Razavi and Donnetta Alston.
Such a major cultural shift, however, brought up numerous concerns about whether managers would be able to effectively engage with their staff, peers, and supervisors as they had when working at the office, explains Campbell. “The main issue we had was securing buy-in from all stakeholders,” she says, noting that moving forward depended on the pilot project outcomes that would satisfy participants and stakeholders and overcome initial concerns.
Directors Coggins and Sykes were able to get everyone on board by agreeing that “some level of ‘physical presence’ would be necessary at times” and then working that reality into the program’s final guidelines. In addition, to ensure that communications between the office and remote sites would not be an issue, the Patents organization decided to train all managers and employees, not just remote workers, on the proper use of the agency’s various communications tools.
“We successfully addressed these issues through good communications, data gathering during the pilot phase, and strong collaboration with our union,” Coggins says, explaining that the Patent Office Professional Association was heavily involved in the structure of the pilot and the eventual deployment of the formal program.
All managers were provided with standard USPTO telework tools: a laptop, docking station, keyboard, mouse, surge protector, and carrying bag. However, Sykes notes, the pilot program just happened to coincide with the launch of a campus-wide upgrade to the organization’s conference room communications tools that now enable full webcasting capabilities. “That technology improvement was critical to the success of our program,” she states.
The USPTO carefully evaluated manager performance during the pilot by relying on objective and subjective measures to ensure each manager/participant was able to perform their duties and to verify their efforts were in no way diminished by working remotely. It was also critical that the pilot show that the USPTO was able to serve its constituents well, regardless of the managers’ official duty location. The objective data used included a comparison of aggregate performance data for each participating manager over historically similar time periods. Surveys and focus sessions also were employed to understand a range of measures, including participant responsiveness, information technology issues, collaboration tool usage, and reasons why participants were required to physically return to the USPTO campus.
The feedback from participants and their managers was extremely positive in the end. Participants felt their “overall accessibility to staff had improved and that they had more time and flexibility since they were no longer commuting and spending time on the road,” Coggins says. “The majority of second-level supervisors felt that there was no change in the participating manager’s responsiveness – and some second-level managers specifically reported that participants were generally more available when working remotely.”
The formal, permanent program is officially underway, with 110 Patent managers now working from home on a permanent basis. Coggins notes that to be eligible to work as a full-time teleworker, managers must, among other things, have at least one year’s experience in their management position, possess a strong record for meeting key performance metrics, and have demonstrated the ability to work remotely from home. To remain eligible, participants must continue to manage as effectively as they did when working in the office.
Campbell, who believes the program may be the first of its kind in the Federal government, says the full-time manager program will grow over time and she is looking forward to continue to share best practices with other agencies. “We will continue to gather data and evaluate the formal program in the coming months and will make adjustments as necessary, including future participation levels.”