02.16.21

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EPO Behaves Like a Private Corporation, Pretends to be Poor Only When That Suits Its Agenda

Posted in Europe, Patents at 12:08 pm by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

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Summary: What was originally intended or supposed to be a public-serving institution has become an arrogant and secretive money-burning operation that besieges its own staff and misuses funds; the Central Staff Committee (CSC) gives a new example of that

The following letter dated yesterday was circulated among EPO staff some time earlier today. Someone passed us a copy as it’s an open letter and there’s nothing secret(ive) about it.

“They make all the big decisions in private as if it’s a private company.”“Mr Campinos has initiated a project on the workplace concept,” said the Central Staff Committee (CSC), “as well as a working group. The project includes a pilot to test different workplace layouts, which include a high percentage of open-space offices: at least 50% open space and up to 90%. The outcome of this pilot could lead to the final decision to reconfigure our workplace in all places of employment with a large share of open space.”

This isn’t really a new plan.

Berlin/German Reichstag“The staff representation is very concerned about this project,” it says, “particularly because the basic aspects of the project, such as the motivation for exploring workplace reconfiguration, have not been communicated. Users’ needs, justification of the expenditure and risk analysis in terms of health and viability seem not to have been addressed completely.”

This is the usual from Benoît Battistelli and António Campinos. They make all the big decisions in private as if it’s a private company. They never even ran a private company themselves.

“In this open letter to the President,” the CSC says, “we set out our major concerns, and ask the administration to provide us with some basic information to help us resolve some of the many unanswered questions. Once again, we reiterate that, in these times of uncertainty, far-reaching decisions on reforms should not be made which could prove detrimental to the future of the Office and its staff. The decision to focus on open space is also difficult to reconcile with the fact that it is said that the world should prepare for the next pandemic.”

Here’s the full letter as HTML:

Reference: sc21017cl-0.3.1/4.4
Date: 15.02.2021

European Patent Office | 80298 MUNICH | GERMANY

Mr António Campinos
President of the EPO

ISAR – R.1081

OPEN LETTER

Workplace concept – Need for a strong “business” case

Dear Mr President,

We have been informed of the intention to adapt the workplace to the New Normal situation under a new project. A corresponding working group has met twice to date, with only two staff representatives being allowed to attend. During those meetings, we were advised that the Office plans to test different layouts for our workplace in a pilot. In all test-layouts a significant part of space is reconfigured into open office space (multiple workplaces in a shared area), at least 50% up to 90% open space, wherein the number of single offices is reduced accordingly.

By changing the workplace setup to such an extreme extent, the impact could be largely detrimental to the colleagues’ needs and their work, thereby possibly negatively affecting the overall performance of the Office. Therefore, in order to ensure that the new workplace concept is an improvement on the current situation and would be beneficial for staff, we would like to draw your attention to a number of important considerations.

In projects of benefit for staff, or even in small projects, you normally insist on a “strong business case” to even envisage a change. Where is the business case here, with a motivation for the reconfiguration of the workplace, an analysis of the needs of the users, a justification of the expenditure, and a risk analysis? In the following, we set out our considerations on each of these matters.


Motivation for the reconfiguration of the workplace

The motivation for the project has not yet been clearly communicated to us, and we request that the Administration provide us with well-defined goals of the project. However, during the working group meetings, we were provided with some indications.

Reduction of occupancy?

The Office has suggested that future reduced occupancy is one of the main motivations for reviewing the workplace layout. We recognise the fact that teleworking will remain after the pandemic has passed, and although we do not yet know to what extent, we agree that the number of colleagues working on Office premises is likely to decrease.

However, this alone does not justify a significant change to the current set-up into open office space since, if the intention was to keep all the Office buildings, there would be no need to change on account of reduced occupancy. So far, we have not received any indication as to whether the Office intends to reduce the overall office space (and possibly sell entire buildings).

In the planned pilot test layout of the New Main in The Hague (TH), the number of workspaces per floor is to be increased from approximately 90 to 150-200. Once deployed across the whole of the New Main, this would provide 3300-4400 workplaces, and even with some redundancy, it is expected that the approximately 2700 staff in TH could be accommodated. This means that the Office intends to save space. It is still unclear why the Office has chosen to move specifically towards open office spaces in the first place, since there are alternative solutions.

One alternative could be to change the use of the existing working space without changing the structural layout, as would be the case for more than one employee using a given single room at separate times and on a different personal desk (single occupancy). Such a solution would also take into account the decrease in occupancy resulting from increased teleworking and cater for the preferences of staff regarding the number of days per week they spend on Office premises. Thus, the project, which looks only at the ratio of shared to individual working areas, excludes from the onset other options that might be more suited to the workflow of our staff. We wonder why a change in our work space necessarily involves shared areas? Given the accepted and well-established practice of our staff to work in individual offices, this is a departure from the tried-and-tested layout.

Enhancing collaboration?

Another assumption underlying the project is that open offices would enhance collaboration between staff. However, our own brief overview of the scientific literature leads to the conclusion that it is unfounded and that – on the contrary


- shared offices lead to a significant decrease in collaboration. A study1 has empirically measured staff interaction before and after the adoption of an open office architecture and has concluded that an “open architecture appeared to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from officemates and interact instead over email and IM” and that “face-to-face interaction decreased significantly (approx. 70%)”. Another article2 made the strong statement that “studies show that ostensibly collaborative open-plan offices and buildings can trigger conflict, promote territorial behaviors and undermine collegiality”.

In view of the fundamental changes to be made to the workplaces, we expect from the Administration to conduct a serious analysis of published scientific studies on this assumption, rather than simply follow the whims of some senior managers. Independent scientific studies which have been double-checked by experts prior to their publication (peer-reviewed scientific studies) should be taken into account for this analysis. The fact that other national patent offices have introduced an open office concept is merely an argument at the level of “others have done it, we have done it too”, if an independent and thorough analysis of the impact on presence, well-being, and performance is not provided.

In the light of the above, we request the Office to share their analysis of scientific peer-reviewed studies and the evidence that led them to conclude that open offices improve collaboration.

Analysis of the needs of staff

In early 2020, Gensler (an American design and architecture firm) conducted a small-scale study comprising individual interviews of 11 colleagues, and one workshop of 15 participants. You did not give us the full data of this study, but from the brief summary, it was quite evident that open office space was considered completely unsuitable for examiners and formalities officers, and for colleagues with very different workflows that were combined under the heading of “corporate functions”, it was difficult to draw a conclusion. Gensler suggested that the vast majority of office space for our colleagues should be configured as single offices.

Further, relating to well-being of staff, in order to find the most economical and ecological solution to office climate management (temperature, humidity, air quality), the EPO commissioned a study by the company Transsolar KlimaEngineering. It concluded that the optimal solution in terms of energy usage and expenditure was a high degree of autonomy of the colleagues in their individual offices, a solution which, according to them, has the additional benefit of best satisfying the comfort of the employees.

_____
1 The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration, E.S. Bernstein et al, Phil. Trans. B, 2018.
2 Collaboration, Physical Proximity and Serendipitous Encounters: Avoiding collaboration in a collaborative building, G. L. Irving et al, Organization Studies, 2019.


Although both Gensler and Transsolar KlimaEngineering studies found that single offices were the desired solution to fit the needs of the vast majority of staff, the findings have now been disregarded, and the pilot for testing examiners’ and formalities officers’ workspaces in the New Main and for the so-called corporate functions in the Isar building is planned to involve a large ratio of open office space. We wonder how can it be that the input that was obtained from the very staff who would be future users of the space was ignored, and a decision was taken that contradicts the findings, thus lacking any justification or basis?

Since the workplace layout of the New Main building in TH already comprises a share of 25% of shared offices and spaces, we suggest that the Office commissions a study on the well-being and workplace preferences of staff in these offices at the very least. In addition, since there are also collaborative areas in the New Main, we would also suggest that an analysis of the use (or underuse) of these areas be performed. We stress that this would provide invaluable insight into the potential benefits and disadvantages of open office layouts, without significant cost.

Justification of the expenditure

On the expenditure of the project, the Administration has given very few details, and was silent with respect to the potential return on investment. Therefore, without any data or information, all we can do is to ask a number of questions that we consider it vital that the Administration responds to:

- Is it justifiable to implement an office-wide building redesign, at huge cost for the Office? Particularly at a time when, according to the Administration, the Office is in such need of ensuring the financial sustainability that staff salaries are being adjusted below inflation?
- If savings are expected from reconfiguration, do they offset the costs of redesigning the working areas?
- If collaboration practice is impacted, what is the basis to assume that the impact will be financially beneficial for the Office?

Risk analysis

A thorough risk analysis is necessary before starting a project of this size and scope. Therefore, we would expect that it would have been performed before the project was approved. Nevertheless, the following non-exhaustive list provides some various risks that we consider important to address.

Health and well-being

It is undeniable that indoor open spaces facilitate the transmission of infectious diseases. Whether mild or severe, new health issues are generated,


which are detrimental to staff and involve additional financial risks, since open office layouts also increase the number of sick leave days3.

In addition, a survey conducted by SUEPO The Hague among colleagues working in the New Main revealed that the majority of respondents were distracted by audio and visual noise, which is a potential source of stress. Furthermore, it is known that the optimum working temperatures in terms of cognitive performance depend on gender4 and may also be dependent on other factors such as age and body mass index. This is easily taken into account when colleagues have their own offices and can set the ambient temperature to suit their needs. However, an open or shared office requires that colleagues are each working in sub-optimal conditions that affect their ability to work efficiently. How have these and other important factors for staff’s well-being including psychosocial risks been analysed and taken into account?

It seems quite surprising that at the height of a pandemic, the Office has decided to prioritise such a project when we are yet to see what the options for continued teleworking post-pandemic will be, nor the teleworking preferences of staff once all the details have been clarified. Furthermore, we believe that if our office space is to be reconfigured, all efforts should be made to reduce the risks posed by a new outbreak, and that moving towards a denser workspace when we have adequate space is questionable at best.

Viability and management of logistics

In the example layouts presented for the pilot project, in addition to the open office workspace, many different rooms are provided for various tasks (tasks which can all currently be performed in the privacy of single offices) in order to mitigate the noise disturbance in the open offices. These rooms are each designed and allocated for specific uses such as focus work, collaboration discussions, phone calls, ViCos, relaxation, etc. The use of these rooms would have to be managed in some way, with the following questions: would a booking system be needed, how would usage restrictions be enforced, how would potential conflicts between colleagues due to excessive use be handled, etc. It would also be desirable to analyse how much extra space these rooms would require, since the potential space saving of moving to open offices may be negated by the further need of task-based space, and whether there are constructional limitations on the possible office layouts. It also seems unlikely that task-based rooms would alleviate completely the issue of noise and disturbance in the open offices, and there remains the question of how confidentiality and protection of privacy would be ensured. In addition, we have seen no analysis of the extra effort required in terms of time and task-switching on the part of the staff member in regularly changing location for each of the different tasks. How often would a location change be necessary on an average day? How much effort would be required to find a

_____
3
Sickness absence associated with shared and open-plan offices–a national cross sectional questionnaire survey, J. H. Pejtersen et al, Scand. J Work Environ. Health, 2011.
4 Battle for the thermostat: Gender and the effect of temperature on cognitive performance, T. Y. Chang et al, Plos One, 2019.


room available for a given task? Would it impede informal consultations due to the extra effort of changing location required by the colleague being consulted? Repeated interruptions to the workflow due to the need to change the workplace several times a day, including e.g. moving with the laptop to a ViCo room and back afterwards, not only require time but also create stress if, for example, technical difficulties are encountered, or an appropriate space is not easily found. The lack of answers to these questions casts doubts on the viability of the project, and it is imperative to analyse the associated risk thoroughly.

Review of the legal constraints

This change in the workplace concept seems to point towards potential significant savings in workspace and building capacity. Even if, for economic reasons, it would be understandable to strive to reduce the necessary office space, it is necessary to investigate first whether the Office has any buildings at all which, if vacant, may be rented-out or even sold with regard to legal, contractual or intergovernmental agreements. We understand that there has previously been an inquiry into the possibility of selling or renting particular buildings in Munich, but due to the specifics by which the land and buildings was obtained, it was deemed to be a dead-end. There are also potential considerations to be made regarding architect’s rights when considering changes to the layout of buildings, an issue that required significant attention some years ago for the Isar building when it was necessary to replace some windows. In addition, the Office is presently renting on a long-term basis premises outside Munich for the Boards of Appeal, which should be reconsidered. We therefore expect that DG5 will provide a review of the potential legal constraints, and that the result of the analysis will be made available to us.


Conclusion

At the moment, the Office seems to be rushing ahead without any business case and, instead of a serious project, it seems rather to be carrying out a dubious experiment in which the opinion of the staff has been completely disregarded. Whilst the administration have argued that the pilot aims to test different workplace concepts without pre-empting a specific layout, it is difficult for us to come to the same conclusion when only large ratios of open office space are currently planned to be tested. It is hard to argue that such a limitation will not impact the final decision for the future “New Normal” workplace concept, and therefore we insist that any future pilot provides, in an additional test layout, the possibility for all staff to give their feedback on working in a single office (i.e. a test layout with 100% single offices). In addition, because of the risk for health of the colleagues taking part in the pilot, it could happen that some staff members find working in shared office space significantly detrimental to their work or well-being, they should be given the opportunity to return to their previous workplace setup before the end of the pilot period.

With regard to the timeline for the project, we consider that it would be unacceptable to start the pilot before the pandemic has passed, which would be evidenced for instance by the lifting of all occupancy restrictions on the Office’s premises and the roll-out of vaccinations being in the final stages. It would not be possible to draw an accurate picture of the “New Normal” in a steady state if these conditions are not met. We also recall that the Office already presented an “Orientation Paper” on Future EPO building projects5 in 2018-2019, which was trashed as soon as the pandemic broke out.

At this point, we can only strongly urge that the current project, including the pilot of questionable value, be put on hold so that the above concerns can be thoroughly addressed.

Yours sincerely,

Alain Dumont
Chairman of the Central Staff Committee

_____
5 See in particular CA/99/18 and CA/43/19 Rev.1.

This whole buildings project, as noted above, predates the disaster. Why aren’t people being consulted about that?

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