Patent Hoteling Program Succeeding as a Business Strategy

By Gene Quinn
March 15, 2012

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is on the cutting edge of telework programs within the United States federal government and according to the United States Inspector General the USPTO telework program is a great success.  See The Patent Hoteling Program is Succeeding as a Business Strategy.  The telework program affords employees the ability to work from home from 1 to 5 days a week, and the largest of these telework programs — the Patent Hoteling Program (PHP) — had 2,600 patent examiners participating at the end of fiscal year 2011.  According to the Patents Dashboard, at the end of fiscal year 2011 there were 6,885 patent examiners working for the USPTO, which means that 39% of patent examiners were enrolled in the PHP and working from home.

The PHP is voluntary for eligible, participating patent examiners. To be eligible to participate in PHP, individuals must achieve a satisfactory rating, which corresponds to a rating of 3 or higher out of 5.  I have long wondered whether the PHP is a good program myself.  Certainly there is a lot to be gained by allowing patent examiners to work from home, but there is potentially a lot that is lost as well.  With so many patent examiners working from home does the “brain drain” affect the learning curve of new patent examiners who have fewer people around to help and mentor.  The Inspector General’s report does not address the issue of “brain drain,” but does quite clearly demonstrate that those examiners that work from home are more productive than examiners who report to work on campus at the USPTO.

When I interviewed USPTO Director David Kappos in December 2011, I asked him about the work from home programs and whether that was affecting training.  The exchange went like this:

QUINN: I suspect this has always been some kind of an issue of the training. But how much do you think the physical campus not being able to accommodate all of the examiners has been a problem. Does that get in the way of the training and the mentoring do you think?

KAPPOS: I think it’s a management navigational point. It’s something that we have to deal with. I think it presents both new challenges and opportunities that require technology and better, more nuanced leadership and management to deal with. I actually don’t think the distributed workforce has disadvantaged us. I think that we’ve been advantaged by it. And the reason I say that is because if you look at the productivity of hoteling examiners; higher. If you look at number of workdays versus sick days; higher. If you look at the attrition; lower all across the board. That’s not surprising, people love being able to have a well integrated balance of work and life and they can do that if they get to work at home. And they love being able to have the flexibility to live wherever they want and still have a great career at the USPTO. It is one of our aces in the hole and it produces value all across the board. Now, do you have to do things differently? Sure, you have to have virtual department meetings. Examiners have to be able to conduct sensible interviews with applicants by video. And that’s why we did the universal laptop. Now we’ve almost got everyone in the entire agency on a single platform like that single laptop that you see over there, that’s the only computer I have. I take that home with me at night and I bring it back in the morning. Want to do a video interview, no problem, I did a video interview with an applicant on it a while ago. And we’ve got examiners all over the place doing those things. So if we’re smart about leveraging technology I see this distributed workforce as a huge opportunity for us to develop, have the most loyal, skilled, productive group of folks that we possibly can. And I don’t see it as a rate-limiting step for us. It requires careful management and development in order to deal with the fact that people aren’t right there across the table from you like they used to be.

The Inspector General’s report does not address mentoring,  but it does confirm what Director Kappos says in terms of increased productivity.  Those that work from home do more work.

The USPTO provides equipment and remote access to all relevant systems for those that work from home, and in return the patent examiners work from home at least 4 days a week and relinquish their office space at USPTO headquarters. Before participating, patent examiners must meet certain requirements and complete a 1-week training course. The USPTO began hoteling patent examiners in January 2006 with 500 GS-14 and GS-15 patent examiners. Since then, the USPTO has expanded eligibility to include GS-12 and GS-13 patent examiners. Expansion of the program currently is limited—to about 500 additional patent examiners each year, due to infrastructure constraints, such as having the requisite training courses and ensuring system capacity.

Here is what the Report from the Office of Inspector General found:

PHP participants review more patent applications than do examiners working at headquarters. Although both groups review patent applications at the same rate, PHP participants spend more time examining applications because they use less sick and administrative leave and charge less time to administrative tasks. As a result, the average PHP participant spends 66.3 more hours a year examining patents than does the average in-house examiner; this translates to reviewing about 3.5 more patent applications a year.

USPTO avoids real estate costs through PHP but has not calculated a comprehensive cost analysis of the program. Whereas USPTO reported that it avoids $15.88 million annually in real estate costs by having PHP, we estimated that this amount is approximately $16.84 million as a result of the program.

Although PHP incurs additional costs, mainly for IT infrastructure and hoteling support services, these costs are significantly offset by avoided real estate costs as well as revenue generated from the additional patent applications reviewed.

USPTO has adequate controls over the patent hoteling program in key areas; however, close to 2 percent of a random sample of participants lacked documentation to support eligibility in the program.

I would still like to see information about what impact, if any, there has been on the development of junior examiners.  With seasoned, highly rated examiners working from home that could well mean that junior examiners do not receive the mentoring that was once a staple at the USPTO.  This is not to say that the training programs are not good, they are good, but there are times when you need to be able to go and talk to someone more senior than yourself.  You don’t want to go to your direct supervisor all the time, so you go to someone else more senior for assistance.  I think that happens everywhere, in every industry, but may not be happening at the USPTO like it once did.

Notwithstanding, the numbers are clear.  The Patent Hoteling Program is a success.  It is hard to argue with more productivity, particularly at a time when there is such a large backlog to continue to work through.

The Author

Gene Quinn

Gene Quinn is a Patent Attorney and Editor and founder of IPWatchdog.com. Gene is also a principal lecturer in the PLI Patent Bar Review Course and an attorney with Widerman Malek. Gene’s specialty is in the area of strategic patent consulting, patent application drafting and patent prosecution. He consults with attorneys facing peculiar procedural issues at the Patent Office, advises investors and executives on patent law changes and pending litigation matters, and works with start-up businesses throughout the United States and around the world, primarily dealing with software and computer related innovations. is admitted to practice law in New Hampshire, is a Registered Patent Attorney and is also admitted to practice before the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. CLICK HERE to send Gene a message.

Warning & Disclaimer: The pages, articles and comments on IPWatchdog.com do not constitute legal advice, nor do they create any attorney-client relationship. The articles published express the personal opinion and views of the author and should not be attributed to the author’s employer, clients or the sponsors of IPWatchdog.com. Read more.

Discuss this

There are currently 8 Comments comments.

  1. Joe Polimeni March 16, 2012 8:31 am

    Today’s advanced technology provides the ability to receiving mentoring while working from home (or anywhere else). Working from home – at least some days – should be part of the national approach to reducing our reliance on oil and reducing the stress on our transportation infrastructure.
    I’ve been working from home for five years and I’ve been mentored successfully – the key is management attention to the mentoring process and the individuals involved.

  2. MBT March 16, 2012 8:47 am

    And to think the PTO really fought it when the Patent Office Professional Association (“POPA”) and the Department of Commerce were both trying to convince the management to implement it. The excuses were numerous and training of new examiners was one of them. But also mentioned were supervisory issues, examiners watching kids while at home instead of working, safeguarding of information and even if examiner’s workspaces would be ADA compliant. Most of these issues are valid concerns and needed to be addressed, but instead of addressing them, the answer was “no.” When it was rolled out, there were a limited number of primary examiners who were allowed to do it. When POPA pointed out that the Alexandria camps wasn’t big enough to accomodate all the examiners, they did want to hear that either. I am really happy to both see hotelling implemented and to see that it is working! Kudos to Mr. Kappos and his team for making it work and embracing it. Thanks for this overview Gene!

  3. passerby March 16, 2012 10:54 am

    FWIW, my primary when I was still at the PTO was a hoteling participant, and I would say that I never had an issue getting advice from him. He came into the office once or twice a week to hold office hours and help conduct interviews with his junior examiners, and he will offer advice on cases. He also was responsive to e-mail questions and answered his phone. I found these measures to be more than adequate in terms of the amount of supervision I needed. The truth is that even for a junior examiner, there isn’t really a need for constant supervision, given that most of the work is pretty self directed. He would mark up our claims to tell us when we missed a 112 issue and would review our work pretty well, and there really wasn’t a lot of reason for him to be constantly present to do these things for us.

    Now, I’ll grant you that I can’t guarantee that my experience is typical, but I haven’t heard any complaints from my former fellow examiners about having a primary that hotels.

    Also one more area that the hoteling examiners pay off is during adverse weather conditions. You may remember “snowmaggedon” a couple of years ago. As an onsite examiner I had nearly a week of administrative leave, but the hoteling examiners were able to do work. That biweek alone, I imagine the hoteling examiners probably did twice the number of cases as the examiners that needed to report to the office. Just saying.

  4. Gene Quinn March 16, 2012 11:21 am

    I really appreciate the examiners commenting. It is good to hear that mentoring isn’t disturbed by hoteling.

    Hoteling certainly does help when there is a weather emergency, and hoteling definitely lessens traffic and congestion, which in the Northern VA area can’t be lessened enough if you ask me.

    The question that seems to get raised a lot by attorneys, however, is with respect to interviews. There also seems to be issues with respect to getting return calls from examiners. I personally have had examiners tell me that they don’t always get messages properly in their voice mail. I’m not sure that is a work at home issue though, but would love to hear input from those examiners commenting here.

    Thanks.

    -Gene

  5. passerby March 16, 2012 11:49 am

    With respect to interviews, I didn’t find that my primary’s hoteling got in the way. 80-90% of interviews were telephonic, and my primary was nearly always available for a conference call. He would also come in for on-site interviews, even though they were somewhat rare. Even on the occasions when he wasn’t available for an interview, my AU had a deep bench. I could either get one of the other primaries in our AU to proctor, or I could get my SPE to sit in with me.

    As for the phone issue, that’s more of a specific examiner thing in my experience. With the flextime schedule, I would often do a heavy workload on a couple of days in the week and then take light days or days off during other times in the week. This can lead to a situation where a phone message can wait on the examiner for several days if the examiner isn’t calling in to check their messages, (as occasionally happened for me when I was at the office). On a request for interview phone message, there may also be a slight delay where I have to wait a day for my primary to get back to me on when a good time for the interview was, but I didn’t believe these delays to be too big of a deal, at least most of the time. On the rare occasion that an attorney has a response deadline that is approaching and requests an interview with less than a week to respond (and he lets me know about it), I would generally scramble to get an interview together as soon as possible, but I may not be able to get my primary to proctor the interview on such short notice.

  6. Mr. Xaminer March 21, 2012 6:25 pm

    It is important not to forget that most examiners who “hotel” have been with the office for at least a few years. A majority of the training/mentoring is done well before that, so if an examiner struggles to do a good job examining after 2-3 yrs, chances are the examiner will never get “it” (unfortunately). Most of the ongoing/refresher training is all done watching live slides and/or a video stream instead of sitting on campus watching live. Another huge benefit is that examiner pay doesn’t change depending on location since compensation is based on a national special GS scale. So if an examiner moves away from the DC area into a much lower cost of living area, he or she will get a nice instant raise and higher standard of living. This is also important, as the cost of living in/around DC is ridiculous and, in the past, drove many qualified employees away from the PTO and added to the high turnover rate of examiners.

  7. LiverpoolForLife October 18, 2013 8:15 am

    Hi there,
    Quick question – if I am a patent agent (dual US/Canadian citizen), would that allow me (after 2 years of working in the DC area) to live in Canada, and continue to work for the USPTO?

    Thank you