Patent office launching massive telework program

The Patent and Trademark Office is launching a program aimed at moving hundreds of employees working under the commissioner of patents out of their offices and into a work-from-home arrangement.

The move is intended to free up office space required to accommodate a significant increase in the patent division's workforce. The workforce is projected to grow by about a thousand a year through fiscal 2008, as the division brings on more people to help reduce its backlog of patent applications.

In fiscal 2005, the agency received a record number of patent applications, according to its performance and accountability report.

Agency officials say they believe that flexible telework arrangements will make the capital region more attractive to recent college graduates, who might otherwise be deterred by high housing prices in the Washington, D.C. area. The prices force many employees to live as far from the agency's Alexandria, Va., headquarters as Leesburg, Va., and to make 60- to 90-minute commutes.

The 5,500 employees under the agency's patent division recently were notified of the program and were told that an online application designed to help determine whether the program is right for them will be available in January. All of the agency's 4,000-plus patent examiners will be eligible.

Starting in February, the agency plans to put 40 employees at a time through a two-week training course on telework. The courses will continue until September 2006, when the number of trained employees is expected to top out at about 500, according to Stewart Levy, director of the search and information resources administration under the agency's commissioner for patents.

The division plans to continue moving 500 employees to telework arrangements each year.

Levy also is administrator for the Patent Telework program, which is providing employees with computers and black and white laser printers that double as scanners and fax machines. Once employees complete the training course, they will have access to an online reservation system that will allow them to sign up by the hour for office space on the agency's main campus.

The system, known as hoteling, is set up so that for every three employees in the telework program, there will be one office space, which could be a standard cubicle or an actual office. Participants are expected to work in the office as little as one day a week, Levy said.

When the first training program begins, there will be 20 office spaces available to teleworkers, Levy said. As more employees give up their office space in favor of working remotely, the program will recoup the extra space for the hoteling program.

"We view this as a quality of work life issue," Levy said. "The traffic and the price of housing is so high in the Washington area that we have to find ways that we can attract people to come to this agency and retain them."

To meet rising the record number of patent applications, the agency hired 970 patent examiners in fiscal 2005 and plans to hire 1,000 a year through fiscal 2008, Levy said.

"If we get people coming from small urban areas, I don't think they're going to stay because of the traffic and the high housing costs," Levy said.

The program will save the money, Levy said, though the cost of outfitting a patent examiner or patent supervisor to work away from the office runs about $5,500 for just computer equipment.

"We have a very high technical requirements," Levy said. "What the examiners look at are images, and it requires the top-end computers, monitors and fairly high speed printers."

But Levy said the challenge of meeting the high technical demands does not match that of changing the agency's culture.

"The way we train them and supervise them is to see the whites of their eyes," said Levy, who has worked at PTO for 33 years. "How do we get everyone to change how we do business and adjust to it?"

Levy said he is fairly confident that the program will be a success because of the lessons learned by the trademark division, which began its own telework program about seven years ago.

That division, which employs about 500 people, has about 190 employees working away from the office on a regular basis and hopes to increase that to 220.

The patent division ran a pilot telework program four years ago, but the technological challenge of installing broadband Internet connections in everyone's home was too great.

The availability of broadband has improved dramatically in recent years, however, and the agency is looking into reimbursing employees for the monthly cost rather than installing the service itself, because of the challenges posed if the employee moves, Levy said.

Security concerns are mitigated, according to Levy, by the fact that each employee will use a virtual private network with encryption on both ends. The agency has tested the network this year by having hundreds of the patent managers work remotely, he said.

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