Agency sees gains from telework initiative

Telecommuting programs are beginning to pay off for at least one federal agency.

Advances in a program allowing attorneys employed at the Patent and Trademark Office to work from home are enabling the PTO to relinquish about three floors, or 47,000 square feet, of office space, officials said in an interview last week.

The PTO's telework program, launched in 1997, allows lawyers to work from home via computers and Internet connections. The agency expanded the program in 2001 with the introduction of "hoteling." Attorneys that need to work in the PTO's Arlington, Va., offices, reserve workspace in advance, which allows roughly five workers to share one office, Trademark Commissioner Anne Chasser said.

The PTO expects to save roughly $1.5 million in office rental costs as a result, she said.

When attorneys work from home, they typically have access to high-speed Internet connections and support staff for computers and other technology equipment.

"We provide them equipment and computers that are basically identical to what they would have in the office" so that they are "logging on at home to the same environment. That is what is so unique about our programs," said Deborah Cohn, group director for the trademark law offices.

The federal government has expanded its telework programs since a 2001 law required agencies to allow eligible workers to telecommute. By the end of 2003, more than 75 percent of eligible employees will be allowed to telework.

A survey released by the Office of Personnel Management in January showed that the number of government teleworkers increased 21 percent from 2001 to 2002, although a survey in 2002 showed that only about 14 percent of federal workers telecommute.

Bonnie Storm, manager of the work-life group at OPM, said that based on anecdotal evidence, other agencies are realizing similar real-estate savings.

Tim Kane, president of the International Telework Association and Council, said several economic factors are driving the move toward telework. Companies and government agencies can reduce expenses by allowing employees to work from home, he said. Additionally, workers view telework programs as a major benefit, and that helps firms retain employees.

"People want this ... because they like to have a little more control over their lives," he said.

Some critics have said that telework programs can lead to lower productivity because workers have less supervision. However, Cohn said the program is extremely popular and has resulted in increased productivity from the participating attorneys. The agency maintains a waiting list for eligible workers who are interested in participating in the telework programs.

The program also improves the ability of the PTO to retain qualified workers, Cohn said. "We find the people working at home who are able to balance work and family issues," she said, adding that other agencies have requested a lot of information on the success of the initiative.