The USPTO is a Paragon of Remote Working

This is happily the first of what will be an ongoing series of profiles of organizations that are worth taking a closer look at because they are “well-distributed“. In these profiles, we’ll try to take a look at how these organizations operate, what principles they abide, and how they judge their success as a distributed organization.

I was surprised to discover only recently that the US Patent and Trademark Office is indeed a paragon of remote working, with a twenty-year history of pioneering work in distributed organization optimization.

“20 years after the inception of the original remote work pilot, the USPTO has 88% of its workforce working remotely one to five days a week. Remote working has become a proven success at the USPTO, enhancing the agency’s ability to attract and compete for talent.”

Andrei Iancu, Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property & Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office

Post Coronavirus, companies of every size and stripe are going to be looking to reinvent how they work. The presence of the USPTO (a government agency) on a list of organizations that are succeeding in a significantly distributed manner should be very encouraging to all types of other organizations who may be considering a permanent shift to a more distributed version of themselves.

In a 2018 report, the USPTO revealed it had 11,093 people working remotely at least one day per week, an extraordinary 88% of all personnel. And more than 50% are 4-5 days per week

Reasons why remote working is important to the USPTO

  • Remote working significantly and positively impacts the USPTO by reducing the need for additional office space.
  • Remote working enhances recruitment and retention.
  • Remote working fosters greater efficiency in production and management.
  • Remote working provides opportunities for expanded work flexibility.

The USPTO was ready for Coronavirus

For the majority of organizations impacted by Coronavirus the imposition of work-from-home has been a profound disruption. Not so for the USPTO. Since long before COVID-19, before we’d imagined the effects of a pandemic on the patterns of work, the USPTO was planning for crisis contingency and continuity of service scenarios. It was one of their reasons for being a distributed organization. Out of a commitment to continuity of patent and trademark services. We should all be inspired and give respect to the forward-thinking and preparation of the USPTO.

“Our remote work program has also enhanced the USPTO’s resiliency during continuity events, such as weather related closures, because many of our employees can continue to work through them.”

The Cost Savings are Significant

The National Academy of Public Administration found remote working saved the USPTO an average of $7 million per year based on work conducted continuity interruptions. Work they were able to do because they could work as a distributed organization.

The @USPTO reported savings of more than $50M/year from real estate cost avoidance due to its distributed workforce.

The @USPTO increased its degree of distribution from 46% distributed in 2008 to 88% in 2018.

Other Organizational Benefits

Among the most admirable attributes of the USPTO’s distributed workforce is the elasticity they have trained into the system, so that large amounts of the organization can remain remote for extended periods if they need to, without any disruption in productivity. In fact the agency shared stats from a recent disruption of continuity event that showed productivity increased during the interruption. In January of 2018 more than 10,000 of the approximate 12,500 USPTO employees worked remotely. During this period, trademark examining attorneys performed more than 105% of the work they did on recent comparable office days. Patent examiners accomplished an average of 108.5% of the work they did on recent comparable office days.

One of the most attractive consequences, particularly for larger organizations, of being significantly distributed, is they can increase organizational productivity by adding personnel, without incurring 95% of the non-compensation overhead (mainly real estate). Because remote working is an ingrained business strategy in the USPTO, the agency was able to maintain a small real estate footprint despite the need to dramatically increase personnel, and was able to meet all goals including production, quality, and e-government. In addition, the agency was able to maintain its emphasis on an excellent customer experience.

Another oft-cited benefit of being a distributed organization is you can lower your total employment costs, for being able to tap great talent at better salary rates from a wider geographic area. The USPTO shared some numbers that prove these benefits are real. Under a pilot program called TEAPP, the agency was able to open up hiring of patent attorneys (a big chunk of total payroll) to a larger geographic area. Because of the difference in local pay, the USPTO was able to avoid over $500K in compensation costs in 2018. Since TEAPP’s inception, the agency has saved over $2 million dollars in salary reductions. These savings were made possible because these patent attorney positions were designed to be 100% remote from the start.

Technology

As a government agency, you’d be right to expect that the USPTO can’t take advantage of the cool distributed company tools, like Slack and Notion. But, like all good distributed organizations, they take care to make sure what they have works for the purpose of facilitating a distributed team. That their IT team has this mandate is incredible. Imagine if more IT teams had had a mandate to make remote working “work” before Coronavirus.

Using a wide suite of hardware and software the distributed team at the USPTO are able to remain seamlessly connected to each other, their managers, and their overall work environment, regardless of where they are physically located. This suite includes the Universal Laptop, Virtual Private Network (VPN) connection, the Cisco Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), Microsoft Lync, webcam, Cisco WebEx, and small office/home office (SOHO) router. They also have an intranet that is dedicated to supporting the distributed team in ways not unlike those of Gitlab and Automattic.

Environmental Impact

6,324 workers working remotely four or five days per week:
• Avoid driving 70 million miles in a year
• Collectively save $5.5 million in gas a year
• Collectively reduce emissions by 37 thousand tons a year

Why the USPTO embraces working as a distributed organization

Remote working improves employee satisfaction by providing opportunities for expanded work flexibility, decreasing the costs and stress of commuting, and improving work-life balance.

Importantly, remote working also enhances the resiliency of the USPTO by allowing the majority of employees the ability to work during any event that threatens the continuity of operations.

The USPTO has a lovely “Why choose us” page, where you can learn more about how they work.