Danette Campbell is a finalist for the The Samuel J. Heyman Service to America… (Jahi Chikwendiu/WASHINGTON…)
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.”