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12/7/2010
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Practical Analysis: A New 'ERA' Of Telework

Departments can use federal agency’s remote-access portal to get teleworkers up and running for a fraction of what it would cost to provide them with new gear.

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The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is all about good ideas. One area where we've taken a leadership role is in enabling cost-effective telework by letting employees use their own hardware to connect to their office desktops.

The cost: $105 per employee versus the $2,800 it would cost to supply each individualwith gear. We provide authorization, training, a SecurID token for VPN access, and collaboration tools, including video, voice, chat, whiteboard, and document sharing.

Our Enterprise Remote Access (ERA) Portal has been active since February 2009 and has helped our business units bring into telework programs more than 350 employees who would have otherwise, due to budget constraints, not been able to participate. The ERA Portal is used primarily by employees who work one or two days per week at home.

These people generally haven't relinquished their offices on our Alexandria, Va., campus to work remotely full time, so there's no real estate savings associated with use of this technology. However, we believe that giving them the ability to telework may encourage them to extend their years of service at the agency and positively impact attrition. With the portal, business units can get a teleworker up and running for the cost of a SecurID fob, about $105--a huge savings.

On the technology side, teleworking employees use SSL VPNs to establish secure tunnels between their home systems and our network. Once the connection is up, they establish RDP links over the VPN back to their physical workstations in the office. That means the desktop displayed is the same, whether the employee is working at the office or from home.

John B. Owenscio, U.S. PATENT AND TRADEMARK OFFICE
John B. Owenscio, U.S. Patent And Trademark Office

Process and training are as important as technology. The agency has an enterprise-wide telework policy that lays out standards of conduct and confidentiality requirements that must be met, regardless of where official duties are performed. ERA Portal participants also must attend a two-hour training session, where they're taught how to authenticate using the SecurID token and USPTO domain logon, connect to the SSL VPN and ERA Portal, access USPTO resources, use RDP to log on to their office computers or virtual machines, configure Nortel's CallPilot Desktop Messaging, check voicemail from Microsoft Outlook inside the RDP session, and log out of the portal.

Some lessons we've learned:

>> Consider bandwidth requirements before letting a large group of employees access your network remotely. We're constantly monitoring our bandwidth usage and adding capacity. In addition, we mandate that teleworkers have high-speed Internet connections, using either cable or FiOS, with minimum download and upload speeds of 2 Mbps.

>> Establish minimum system specs for end-user-supplied gear. We require Windows XP with Service Pack 2 or 3 or the 32-bit version of Windows Vista. Internet Explorer 6 or greater must be the default browser, and a current Java client must be installed. And, to ensure the security of the USPTO infrastructure and the integrity of our data, any remote client trying to establish a secure connection is checked for an up-to-date antivirus program.

>> Train service-desk personnel to support remote users. In the event that our first-tier technicians can't help, we have second-level units available to assist. Because the employee is using personal equipment, hardware and software assistance is minimal, but our IT teams do troubleshoot connectivity issues to ensure that users have fast and secure connections back to the office.

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