Thursday, July 17, 2008

Overcoming an Unexpected Challenge: Telework and Knowledge Transfer Across Generations

I am a telework advocate.

In fact, I am a full-time teleworker that happens to be developing a 3-hour training workshop that motivates Federal managers to give their employees the chance to work remotely (and to telework themselves!).

As I have been preparing this course, I have delved into the diverse issues that prevent managers from implementing telework with their teams. You know the psychological barriers: distrust, information security concerns, perceived favoritism and the potential for reduced productivity. I hope the workshop is able to address these issues successfully and embolden managers to take the plunge into the world of telework.

There is one issue that I had not considered: the connection between telework and knowledge transfer. Last week, I was talking with an employee from the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), an agency that has taken the lead in implementing telework among Federal agencies since many tasks lend themselves to offsite accomplishment.

This young professional indicated that many of the more seasoned public servants at USPTO are taking advantage of the opportunity to telework. According to him, the agency's telework policy requires an employee to have a certain level of tenure (5 years?) before s/he may be considered for telework.

Now here's where it gets interesting. Apparently, a dynamic has developed where the knowledgeable, long-term personnel are not present in the office consistently as a result of telework schedules. Their experience and expertise is greatly needed and sorely missed. The younger or less experienced employees could benefit from the insight of their time-tested colleagues...but are finding it hard to connect with them due to the distance created by telework.

As a result of the steep learning curve associated with some positions, coupled with this disconnect, my friend suggested that there are some retention issues with new hires. Take a look at this article which substantiates this claim. Here's an excerpt:

"...from the beginning of fiscal year 2002 through fiscal year 2006, USPTO hired 3,672 patent examiners. However, the patent examination workforce only increased by 1,644 because 1,643 patent examiners left the agency and 385 patent examiners were either transferred or promoted out of the position of patent examiner. Approximately 70% of the patent examiners who left the agency had been at USPTO for less than 5 years, and nearly 33% had been at the agency for less than 1 year."

The article also provides some informationa about their telework program:

"In fiscal year 2006, approximately 20% of patent examiners participated in the agency's telework program, which allows patent examiners to conduct some or all of their work away from their official duty station 1 or more days a week. In addition, when USPTO began a "hoteling" program in fiscal year 2006, approximately 10% of patent examiners participated in the program, which allows some patent examiners to work from an alternative location."

These percentages of teleworkers would not seem to be a problem, depending on the number of days that people are teleworking. Yet my source may be on to something.

PLEASE NOTE: I am not saying that this challenge is insurmountable. To the contrary, I am hoping to advocate for some solutions (and elicit your ideas!). Also, I am not picking on USPTO. I think this issue may be arising in other agencies and serves as a case study to address what could be a common concern. In fact, I may incorporate this scenario into the course so that managers can create some positive responses.

Below are my initial thoughts:

1. Coach/Mentor Program: Maybe USPTO has a coaching or mentoring program already. If so, this program could be adapted to ensure that new employees are interacting with their well-weathered senior examiners. If not, it would be a great place to start.

2. Survey of New Hires: One obvious and easy way to learn about the needs of new hires is to conduct a survey to find out what they would require to learn the job more rapidly. A quick and efficient way of conducting a survey is to use an online tool like Survey Monkey or Zoomerang. Results are compiled automatically so there's no need for number crunching. Make it short and sweet to increase the number of respondents.

3. Web 2.0 Tools: Why not create a wiki or a blog where senior patent examiners can share tricks of the trade in one location? How about creating a series of podcasts, videos or web-based tutorials that new hires can download to their iPods, MP3 players or phones in order to listen while commuting to work? What about creating a Facebook page where employees can create a sense of community and feel connected to one another despite the distance imposed by telework?

Telework and knowledge transfer need not be mutually exclusive. In fact, one might contend that these unexpected challenges are causing all of us to stretch and explore new ways of working together. Telework is and should become more prevalent for a number of reasons. The knowledge of a previous generation will always be passed to the next. We just need to be creative in discovering how to overcome the obstacles to successful communication in a web-based world that affords the advantage of arrangements like telework.

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