Since the 1990s, the European Patent Office has been a pioneer in home office and digitalisation of its work processes. Now, there is a desire among staff to work not only from their home offices in Munich or The Hague, but also from their home countries. This shift is creating a dynamic that is unlikely to end, even after the coronavirus pandemic.
17 December 2020 by Christina Schulze
From the beginning of 2021, the European Patent Office will generally conduct oral proceedings by video conference. This will be the case, even if both parties have not consented. Externally, this is the most obvious sign of the EPO’s pioneering role in the digitalisation of work processes. There is no doubt that, for oral proceedings before Examining and Opposition Divisions and the Boards of Appeal, the EPO is setting new standards. Now the office is also examining its home office procedures.
During oral proceedings via video conferencing, from the technical side the EPO does not require its staff to be physically present. As such, the EPO has no specific rules covering this. Furthermore, early in 2020 the EPO ensured its staff were home office-ready and prepared for a digital transition.
In response to an enquiry by JUVE Patent, the EPO said, “At the beginning of March, the number of staff members who were able to move their work home almost doubled from 3100 to 6000 in just two weeks. The capacities of the internet lines were increased tenfold, and the availability of research databases and other technical systems was also extended.”
“The EPO adapted its internal work to the new electronic workflow. Already by the third week of March, around 80% of EPO staff were able to carry out their tasks almost entirely from their home office.”
Interestingly, the new procedures see the EPO build on its long-term digitisation strategy. Since 1998, the office has conducted oral proceedings before Examining Divisions via video conference. The EPO has now brought forward some elements of this strategy because of the restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Pascal Faure, INPI CEO and president of the EPO’s Budget and Finance Commission says, “Digitalisation at the EPO was already well-advanced before the corona pandemic. But of course, we had to invest to enable all staff to work from home right away. To do this, we used more funds from the 2020 budget than planned in order to speed up the transformation.”
Over the past year, the EPO has invested in equipping staff with laptops and home office equipment. But the EPO is also progressing with its digital systems. Of course, the ultimate goal is to protect the health of staff and users. However, the EPO also has an eye on its efficiency goals.
As such, Faure also points out a potential problem which could be crucial for users. “In addition to protecting everyone’s health, an important goal is of course that the backlog at the EPO does not become too large as a result of corona,” he says. Internationally, patent attorneys are receiving the step towards increased communication via video conferencing differently, as JUVE Patent has already reported.
In an international organisation such as the EPO, home office and mobile working are more complicated issues. Staff are keen to work not only from their homes at EPO locations – but also from their home countries.
At the request of JUVE Patent, the EPO confirmed, “The EPO employees can work remotely from their home in our member states. For instance, to better support their families in their home country, or to take care of their children at home in times of lockdown of schools”. How many staff members still make use of this option is as yet unknown.
However, this openness also opens up many opportunities for new structures. Staff recruitment and connection to the national patent offices of the member states may also be impacted.
The EPO conducted a survey among its staff, to discover what they want and need from their work situation. Pascal Faure says, “The EPO’s employees come from many countries. A central question which arose regarding beyond corona is what does it means if, in the future, EPO employees no longer have to be permanent resident in Munich, and can work partly at home or from their home countries.”
In fact, the staff survey enjoyed high participation. While the EPO has not yet published the results, questions regarding how the EPO will deal with potentially reduced staff loyalty have arisen. The importance of the EPO’s locations, especially Munich, could decrease. In this case, the outcome for companies and patent attorneys in the individual member states could be interesting.
However, according to JUVE Patent information, this week’s Administrative Council meeting made no decisions beyond this. The current rules are valid until September 2021. For now, the EPO community will have to wait and see what new normality is established.