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Telecommuting's patently obvious gains

The Patent Office is on the right track with plan to reimburse employees for high-speed Net access, says attorney Eric Sinrod.

Employees telecommuting from home for work is becoming a fact of life in the Internet age. Employers are embracing such arrangements, such that they now are beginning to reimburse employees for the Internet services they use at home for work purposes.

A case in point is the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The acting chief financial officer of the Patent Office recently made a request to the U.S. Government Accountability Office for permission to reimburse its employees for costs associated with maintaining high-speed Internet access at their homes in connection with the patent agency's telework program. The GAO just approved this request, while recommending that the Patent Office periodically review reimbursements to ensure that there are adequate safeguards in place against private misuse. The background is as follows.

The Patent Office is a federal agency within the Department of Commerce that is charged with the mission of promoting the progress of science and useful arts by securing for limited times to inventors the exclusive right to their inventions.

The agency has proposed a telecommuting program whereby its employees would be permitted to telecommute up to four days per week from an approved designated alternative work site--usually the employees' homes. The agency believes that this program will improve work force recruitment and retention, reduce traffic congestion and pollution in the Washington, D.C., area, and deliver substantial cost savings. It expects to have 3,300 employees participating in this program by 2011.

There are great conveniences for the employee who no longer has to travel to and from work. And there are societal benefits, such as reduced traffic, congestion and pollution.

As part of the program, the Patent Office would require employees to maintain high-speed Internet access meeting certain minimum technical requirements, to submit copies of invoices from their Internet service providers, and to attest to the percentage of ISP services used for work-related purposes.

Employees would be eligible for only 50 percent or 100 percent reimbursement, depending on the amount of monthly business use of Internet services. The program would reimburse only for the basic rate of ISP connection services, and would not reimburse charges or costs associated with service initiation, activation, installation and so on. Employees also would be required to disclose whether the ISP provides bundled services, so that television, telephone and other services would not be reimbursed along with reimbursement for the Internet connection. The maximum allowable reimbursement for high-speed Internet access per employee per month would be $100.

The Patent Office has put in place controls that it believes will help ensure that ISP services are reimbursed only for work-related purposes. The agency, for example, would measure the productivity of participating employees biweekly, quarterly and annually. Furthermore, to participate in the telework program, an employee must be rated at least "fully successful" overall in his or her most recent performance evaluation. He or she also must agree to give up his or her individual office at the Patent Office headquarters.

Based on all of the foregoing, the GAO has approved the Patent Office's telework program with respect to reimbursement of high-speed Internet access of its employees who work from remote sites, generally from their own homes. The only caveat imposed by the GAO is the admonition that the Patent Office continue to monitor the situation to make sure there is no private misuse and that reimbursed Internet connections are used for official work purposes.

Plainly, the Patent Office's telework program is laudable and the GAO's decision is correct. There are many . There are employer cost savings of not having to maintain an office and other resources for an employee who works from home. There are great conveniences for the employee who no longer has to travel to and from work. And there are societal benefits, such as reduced traffic, congestion and pollution.

The location of an employee is not as important as the employee's performance. Employee performance and productivity can be measured. So long as an employee is performing his or her job functions well from home, those functions should be supported. Internet access in this day and age is critical support, and the employer cost of reimbursing such access is nominal when compared with the cost of maintaining an employee in an office at the employer's premises.