USPTO lets examiners Work@Home

When the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office began experimenting with telecommuting in the 1990s, it was a "far out idea," said Anne Chasser, commissioner for trademarks.

In March 1997, 18 trademark examiners began working from home three days a week under the USPTO's Work@Home pilot program. The examiners' productivity and performance were monitored for more than three years.

"We have rigorous measures to prove to ourselves and the agency that this is a win-win for employees and that there's business returns as well," Chasser said.

Employee feedback indicates that the option to telecommute is a factor in extending a career with USPTO, said Kimberly Walton, deputy chief administrative officer for human resources, civil rights and administrative services at USPTO. In 1998, for instance, the attrition rate for trademark-examining attorneys at USPTO was nearly 9 percent, but Walton said that none of the examiners left last year.

The results of the pilot program prompted the introduction of a Work@Home in the trademark division last year. Chasser said that 90 examiners now work from home three days a week, with 110—a quarter of the staff—expected to be telecommuting by the end of the year.

"Intellectual property is very hot, and there's a high demand for trained attorneys," Chasser said. "We want to attract and retain high-quality employees through technology and by developing more family-friendly work options for employees."

Of the 1,721 USPTO employees eligible to telecommute, 332 work from home at least part of the time, Walton said. And the trademark Work@Home telecommuting program has been so successful (the program was awarded a 2001 Commuter Connections Employee Recognition Telework Award by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments) that the patent division launched a six-month pilot program last month for its senior examiners.

But telecommuting is not for everyone. USPTO doesn't permit managers to telecommute, for example. For others, it's a matter of preference.

"Some people need to get up, get dressed and drive to work. They need the camaraderie, and work better in an office," Chasser said. "There are concerns about constant communication and not being able to walk into someone's office, but we do a lot of communicating through e-mail. A lot of it is personality and management style."

Chasser said she's glad she can offer the telecommuting option to people who work for her. "I personally am very supportive of it," she said. "Again, you have to trust your employees, and believe in the employees to do the right thing."

Work-at-Home Savings

At USPTO, 90 trademark examiners telecommute three days a week as part of the Work@Home program. Based on an average daily commute of 48 miles, USPTO officials estimate annual savings of:

* 624,000 miles of travel.

* 31,104 gallons of gasoline.

* $552 per person in gasoline costs.

* $756 per person in parking costs.

* 204 hours per person in travel time.

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