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Michelle Singletary

Telecommuting can be useful, if it isn’t abused

Working from home may not be as exciting as life aboard the starship Enterprise, but it’s still important to remember this bit of advice from Mr. Spock: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.” Don’t spoil telecommuting arrangements by slacking off on the job.

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Working from home may not be as exciting as life aboard the starship Enterprise, but it’s still important to remember this bit of advice from Mr. Spock: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.” Don’t spoil telecommuting arrangements by slacking off on the job.

WASHINGTON — When I think of the controversy over telecommuting at the US Patent and Trademark Office, I’m reminded of a line from “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

Except in this case, the disclosure that telecommuting employees weren’t putting in as many hours as they had represented on their time reports might cause some managers in the public and private sectors to resist work-from-home arrangements.

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But the misdeeds of the few should not outweigh the honest work of the many.

The Washington Post obtained copies of an internal report that found thousands of telecommuting patent examiners had lied about their hours. The report also indicated the workers would hold off on assignments, then rush to get work completed at the end of a quarter, a practice called “end-loading.” As a result, their work could “go from unacceptable performance to award levels [in one pay period] by doing 500 percent to more than 1,000 percent of their production goal,” the report said. The implication is that if people are rushing to finish work, quality suffers.

Acting on information from whistle-blowers, the inspectors ultimately found serious monitoring issues on the part of supervisors and their superiors. Stories like these give credence to the negative stereotypes portrayed by naysayers opposed to telecommuting.

Telecommuting won’t work for everyone or for many positions in public or private jobs. But when there are opportunities to allow people to telecommute, agencies and companies should explore it. It can save the organizations and individuals money.

A growing number of agencies allow federal employees to telework, according to a 2013 report by the Office of Personnel Management. Under the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010, agencies are required to establish policies allowing certain employees to work remotely and report their efforts to the OPM, which has to submit an annual report to Congress.

“Ultimately, we want agencies to use telework strategically to drive results: ensuring continuity of operations, reducing management costs, improving our employees’ ability to balance their work and life commitments, and increasing accountability for achieving individual work results,” Katherine Archuleta, director of OPM, wrote in her most recent report.

Still, Archuleta said, many managers are reluctant to expand telework participation. And some employees are hesitant to telework because they feel that being in the office is essential to their careers.

“While we have made significant strides in realizing the strategic benefits of telework, management resistance continues to present a barrier to participation,” Archuleta wrote.

Those of us who telecommute often get teased about how much time we might be spending on the job. When a situation such as the one at the patent office happens, you know more gibes will be coming.

People tease you about watching television, or friends and family insinuate that you’re able to lounge around in your bathrobe. Even my kids at times will fuss if dinner is late quipping, “But Mom, you work from home.”

“Can’t you put a load of clothes in the washer?” my husband once complained.

“No, I’m working just like you,” I told him. (I hate doing laundry anyway.)

After Yahoo and the electronics retailer Best Buy shuttered their telecommute programs, research firm ORC International asked people what they thought about telecommuters. Although the vast majority thought they are productive, 29 percent of the survey participants said they were mostly “goofing off.”

To all the jokes and sneering, I respond with a standard speech about how much work I can complete in the time it takes others to commute to and from their offices.

In fact, when I talk to people who telework, they frequently complain that they put in more hours because they are working from home. Their personal time often runs into their work hours.

Still, working at home does allow you to be more flexible. I’m thankful I can arrange my work schedule to get to school events and that I’m not hyperventilating, worried that I will miss something because of driving from downtown. All three of my children have asthma. When they get sick, I can quickly get to them or drop off forgotten inhalers.

Let’s not joke about the incident at the patent office. It’s not funny and only adds to misconceptions about flexible work programs.

But if you work at home, don’t ruin it for others who want to do the same.

Michelle Singletary can be reached at michelle.singletary@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter @SingletaryM.
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