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.