Pros and Cons of USPTO Examiner Teleworking

28 July 2010 PharmaPatents Blog
Authors: Courtenay C. Brinckerhoff

The USPTO has been a leader in federal teleworking programs. The work-at-home program for trademark examiners is nearly 15 years old, and has received numerous awards. The first 500 patent examiners began teleworking in 2006, and more examiners have enrolled in the program every year. The USPTO is eager to expand its program, by eliminating the requirement that non-local examiners report to the USPTO campus in Alexandria, Virginia on a bi-weekly basis. While Director Kappos wrote on his blog that an even more liberal teleworking program will strengthen the examining corps, he should recognize and address the potential drawbacks before adopting a program that might undermine some of the USPTO’s other strategic goals.

The Pros of Teleworking

The benefits of the current teleworking program are easy to identify. Some of these include:

  • improved lifestyles for examiners
  • improved examiner job satisfaction and morale
  • improved examiner retention
  • enhanced ability to recruit examiners when teleworking is an option
  • improved environmental impact with fewer examiners driving to work every day

Additional benefits that might be realized from an expanded teleworking program include:

  • ability to recruit examiners from outside the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area
  • ability to retain examiners who move outside the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area
  • ability to increase the examiner workforce without having to increase office space

The Cons of Teleworking

Although teleworking has many benefits, it also has drawbacks that affect both examiners and applicants. Some of these include:

  • difficulties training an at-home workforce, particularly when the law is continually evolving
  • difficulties supervising examiners when supervisors and/or junior examiners are at different sites
  • loss of informal mentoring opportunities
  • loss of informal interactions with colleagues
  • decreased examiner morale if the examiner feels isolated from colleagues
  • decreased examiner job satisfaction if the examiner feels less engaged
  • difficulties arranging in-person interviews with an examiner and supervisor

Striking the Appropriate Balance

I certainly am not opposed to examiner teleworking. I love the flexibility of being able to work at home occasionally, and I can be at least as productive working at home as in the office. But, my firm would suffer if most partners worked at home most of the time. We need to come to the office to meet with associates, for formal supervising and informal mentoring. We need to come to the office to meet with each other, to share views on legal developments, brainstorm on ways to improve our practice, and forge personal relationships that strengthen our partnership. And of course, we need to come to the office—or to our clients’ offices—to meet with clients.

If Director Kappos hopes to develop an examining corps that works alone at homes spread across the country, I don’t share his optimism that broadly expanded teleworking will serve the goals of improved patent quality, compact prosecution, and public confidence in USPTO operations.

A National Examining Corps?

The USPTO’s draft Strategic Plan envisions a workforce “stationed across the U.S.”  Page 15 includes this specific objective:

DEVELOP AND IMPLEMENT A NATIONWIDE WORKFORCE

We will develop a nationwide workforce using telework which will allow us to hire experienced IP professionals interested in joining the USPTO, but who do not want to relocate to the Washington, D.C. region. It is expected that this different hiring demographic will provide a more productive and balanced workforce, lower attrition, and faster transition to productivity for new hires.

I could not find any information on the USPTO website as to how the agency might balance the costs and benefits of teleworking. The employee benefits page includes a section on telework (also referred to as “hoteling”), but provides no details other than explaining that “each business unit telework program is designed to meet the specific needs of the individual business unit.”

The website of The Patent Office Professional Association (POPA), an independent union that represents examiners, includes a page on teleworking and a copy of the March 2010 agreement between the USPTO and POPA relating to current teleworking programs. It appears that a main point of contention surrounding a “nationwide” workforce is whether the examiner or the USPTO would pay the travel costs when an examiner is required to come to the USPTO.

The resolution of this and other teleworking issues will have a significant impact on stakeholders. If examiners have to pay for their own airfare and lodging, requiring examiners to come to the USPTO for training programs, team-building, or in-person interviews with applicants could create personal hardship. On the other hand, if the USPTO absorbs these costs, the USPTO’s own budget pressures could discourage these visits. Either way, patent examination quality could suffer.

As the USPTO moves forward with its teleworking initiatives, it should ensure that the programs are consistent with its other strategic goals. The USPTO might be able to alleviate stakeholder concerns and garner stakeholder support if it provides more information on its current and planned teleworking programs, and keeps stakeholders informed of its decision-making processes.

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