Doing home work

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office would like to be a model employer. To that end, the agency earlier this month launched a six-month telecommuting pilot program for some of its senior patent examiners as a way to retain its current workforce and attract new recruits.

The pilot will help USPTO determine whether it's feasible to have at least 10 percent of its senior patent examiners work from home one day each week. The project is part of a larger agreement—which also includes a special pay scale and improved automation tools—between the agency and the Patent Office Professional Association.

"We hope that [telecommuting] will influence recruitment and retention," said Esther Kepplinger, USPTO deputy commissioner for patent operations. "We had at least 600 applicants so there's a tremendous amount of interest to participate in the pilot."

During the pilot, 125 patent examiners will work from home one day a week—some using computers supplied by the agency and the majority using their own computers or other tools. After three months, USPTO plans to increase from 10 percent to 25 percent the number of senior patent examiners participating in the pilot.

At the start of the pilot, 25 employees will perform their full duties using USPTO-provided workstations and will have access to full electronic searching over encrypted high-speed data lines. The USPTO will provide commercial 1.5 megabits/sec Digital Subscriber Lines so that examiners can access the terabytes of information they must sift through when deciding whether to grant a patent.

Meanwhile, more than 100 examiners will work from home using their own computers, other USPTO-provided equipment such as Iomega Corp. Jaz drives and the telephone to read and respond to correspondence from applicants.

Already, the agency has more than 90 of its 400 trademark examining attorneys working from home. Last month, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments presented USPTO with a 2001 Commuter Connections Employee Recognition Telework Award for its Trademark Work-at-Home program. USPTO hopes to replicate that success on the patent side.

"Looking at the trademark side," Kepplinger said, "they have experienced an increase in productivity, their quality is at least as good, and customer service is just fine. They believe they have increased retention—they have at least one trademark attorney who is telecommuting from Boston. We're hoping we have similar kinds of benefits."

If the pilot proves successful, USPTO would consider expanding it to more days per week, Kepplinger said. "We need to look at whether or not we can successfully perform" the mission of the agency and do it at the right price.

Ron Stern, president of the Patent Office Professional Association, said telecommuting should make the job more attractive and reduce turnover at a time when the agency is looking to hire more examiners.

"This is a selling point. Employees see this as improving the quality of their life because commuting is a hassle," Stern said. "If we can redirect commuting time to paid useful time, everyone benefits. Even the area benefits because [it] gets cars off the road, and the rest of us can get to work faster."

The real financial benefit of telecommuting, he added, is attracting and retaining people. "This does help us be competitive."

Wendell Joice, governmentwide telework team leader at the General Services Administration, said government has been slow to use telecommuting, but that is beginning to change now that agencies have four years to give 100 percent of their eligible workers the option to work from home or at a telework center.

"We not only have a congressional mandate but also have agency-based goals, which makes it easier for the agencies to know what they have to do," Joice said.

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