IP Australia stops the brain drain through teleworking

IP Australia has been allowing staff to work remotely for eight years, and believes it is the best way to retain skilled employees.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

Living in our nation's capital isn't for everyone, and IP Australia realised eight years ago that retaining skilled patent examiners would mean letting some employees work outside of its Canberra base.

IP Australia is responsible for processing patent, trade mark, and design applications, and makes decisions about disputes over intellectual property rights in Australia.

Almost 15 percent of the agency's 1,000-strong workforce telework for some part of the week on a regular basis, whether that is home-based for one or two days a week, or out-posted to another city. Victor Portelli, general manager of patents at IP Australia told ZDNet that the organisation had started allowing staff to work remotely from around eight years ago.

"It was very dedicated small numbers on technical platforms that weren't as good or as grunty as they are now, but we did have, even at that stage, secure links," he said.

The core infrastructure is based in Canberra, but the agency provides remote access through a Citrix Access Gateway, as well as the desktops and internet connections for staff who telework across the country. IP Australia has three classes of teleworkers: those who work one or two days a week out of the office, those who are permanently off-site, and those who telework from a separate Melbourne office.

The agency decided to start teleworking in order to retain well-educated staff who wanted to live outside the nation's capital.

"These people are at-minimum university educated, and really, to attract and retain those people, we have to be reasonably flexible in the work offerings that we provide," he said. "As a basis, our salary and work conditions are pretty damn good, but on top of that, we're also able to offer a very good incentive for where that person proves themselves very good at working independently and can conduct their own work; we allow them to work in any location around Australia where the internet allows them to."

"It stops us losing people back to Melbourne or back to Sydney. It gives us a competitive advantage on attraction and retention."

He said that when IP Australia recruits people straight out of university, they are generally happy with living in Canberra for the first two or three years, but then feel the lure of moving to Sydney or Melbourne.

The company also established a small teleworking office in Richmond, Victoria, for 36 patent examiners.

"We identified we were losing so many young people [from Canberra] to Melbourne, we set up a small teleworking hub in Melbourne to stop the brain drain."

But those who want to take up teleworking must first meet a number of requirements.

"We don't just let anyone go teleworking. They must reach a certain level of competence within the organisation before their allowed to work teleworking," Portelli said. "We do a psychometric assessment before we let someone be a teleworker, then they discuss with an expert their suitability to telework."

"We try, as best we can, to assess their willingness, ability, and ongoing stability about being a teleworker."

To support teleworkers, IP Australia keeps in constant contact with those workers through video conferencing, email lists, and by putting up videos of internal presentations on IP Australia's intranet for those workers to access. But Portelli admitted that not everyone is suited to telework, and he said that if people are unhappy, they can return to the Canberra office, and if the staff member isn't working, then IP Australia would ask them to return to the office.

Another limit to teleworking is the lack of a decent broadband connection.

"One of the problems we run into is old telephone exchanges don't always have the capacity to support business grade broadband," he said. "[And] if we need to put a new line in to establish a business grade broadband, we have a long waiting time. Some old telephone networks [also] just don't support business grade broadband."

The roll-out of the National Broadband Network (NBN) would be good, Portelli said, in that it would bring faster broadband to those areas where it wasn't possible today.

"The roll-out of the NBN will definitely assist us to provide more locations where people can work from," he said.

Challenges aside, Portelli said that teleworking was about making IP Australia an attractive workplace.

"We do it because we're seen as a good and modern employer. People are your greatest asset, and if you're not looking after your greatest asset, you're losing them after putting three or four years into them, then we're putting in a lot of money into training people," he said.

"It is consistent with modern technology, but it is also consistent with modern expectations."

IP Australia has put together a video that explains how telework works in the agency.

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