More Washington Post criticism of telecommuting at the US Patent Office
Report on patent office: Working from home has become a right, not a privilege. And that’s a problem.:
Dozens of supervisors interviewed said they have trouble knowing when an examiner who works for them from home is actually working, since the employee has to provide a schedule only of the hours he or she plans to work. The supervisors “believe there is a lack of consequences for poor performance and conduct violations, such as time and attendance abuse,” the review found.
Almost three-quarters of the supervisors interviewed said they would bring poor performers back to headquarters for additional training or coaching. But union agreements do not allow them to do that or to engage in the day-to day collaboration the report advocates.
The concessions that management has made to its unions “may have had the unintended effect of limiting [supervisors’] ability to manage their workforce,” the report says. Some managers “expressly stated that they are unable to correct problems with employees because of union influences on the day-to-day operations of the Patent Organization.”
As a first point, IPBiz notes that the base metric to evaluate performance is "how many" actions are performed, which is quantifiable, whether the examiner is in Alexandria, or elsewhere. "How good" the examinations are may be difficult to evaluate without detailed analysis of each case.
A second point is raised in one of the comments to the Post article:
IMO, this is pretty badly misleading... The Patent Office needs a huge number of people who have a wide range of competencies in the scientific, technical, engineering and legal areas to review the bazillion patent applications they get. But they only have budget to pay a fraction of what people with those pretty rare combinations of skills are normally paid. The way they're able to fill the positions is by offering extremely flexible schedules and locations. A lot of who they manage to get are scientists, lawyers and techies who can't do 9-6 in an office for some life reason, like needing to care for a dying parent or a newborn baby or maybe they become physically disabled, etc. The trade-off is, you make like 1/3 what you used to make per hour, but you can just work for a few hours here and a few hours there when you get a chance and then binge work when your sibling is in town to help or whatever.
So, yeah, the PTO could start running it in a more rigid manner with more fixed work hours and requiring everybody to physically come in to one of their offices and so forth, but they'd either have to accept far, far, less competent people or they'd need to pay far, far, more. The way they do it currently is actually a pretty smart way to avoid having to make that choice and it fills a pretty useful niche for a lot of people.
IPBiz notes that examining patent applications is a tough job, and examiners do not get a lot of (budgeted) time to do the job.