Annual Review 2020

Managing the COVID-19 pandemic

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For the EPO, coping with COVID-19 created a host of unforeseen operational challenges that called for swift decisions and effective action. From the outset, its top priorities were to protect the health and safety of staff and users, play its part in mitigating the spread of the virus and ensure business continuity.

The EPO's response to the pandemic was co-ordinated by a crisis response team of senior executives and managers responsible for key areas such as health and safety, IT, buildings and communications. This crisis response team had been set up at the very beginning of 2020 so that, by the time a global pandemic was declared in March, the EPO was ready to spring into action with quick-fix solutions such as banning duty travel to high-risk areas. But it soon became apparent that the pandemic's spread called for more extensive measures with far-reaching implications.

Two factors were crucial to the EPO's success in implementing changes: flexibility and digital transformation. As an employer, the EPO adopted a more flexible approach by abolishing core business hours, extending IT system availability, allowing staff to work in other member states and introducing more flexible rules on parental leave. However, the pandemic also demanded agility from staff, who swiftly embraced new workflows and successfully juggled rapid workplace changes with home schooling and other personal commitments.

To help relieve the pressure on staff trying to strike a healthy work-life balance during a pandemic, the EPO launched a number of initiatives. Staff were offered a wealth of online training resources (iLearn) on topics such as working effectively in a digital environment, managing dispersed teams and facilitating online meetings. This was complemented by enhanced support from the EPO's Health and Safety team focused on both physical health (by promoting microbreaks, active breaks and online physiotherapy) and psychosocial wellbeing (including sessions on mindfulness and resilience as well as parenting and home schooling during lockdown).

Communication too undoubtedly played a key role in coping effectively with the pandemic. In March, a "Corona corner" was set up on the intranet to create an online hub for all information related to the crisis and to encourage staff working remotely to share their experiences. New features were added throughout the year, with video messages of support from senior executives and staff reaching out to each other in increasingly creative ways.

In April, the intranet area was renamed "Strong Together" to reflect the sense of community it fostered. A month later, in an Office-wide survey on coping during the crisis, 78% of staff reported that the EPO was doing a good job of keeping them informed. And, by the end of 2020, "Strong Together" was the EPO's most-visited intranet page, with a total of 200 000 visits. But although staff's response to the pandemic was tremendous, ensuring business continuity would not have been possible without digital transformation.

Digital transformation - towards a paperless patent granting process

Fortunately, digitalisation was already deeply embedded in the EPO's Strategic Plan 2023 launched back in 2019, putting the Office on solid footing to respond effectively to the pandemic. But the events of 2020 pushed us to go digital far faster than initially anticipated.

In practice, this meant rolling out a total of 5 800 laptops to create a mobile workforce. To support staff working remotely, the Office also delivered over 4 700 monitors, 1 900 chairs and 750 desks to employees' homes in 2020. But creating better homeworking ergonomics was just the beginning.

The large-scale shift to teleworking called for new digital workflows in search and examination and digital annotation tools to support transparent collaboration between examiners and formalities officers. It also accelerated the launch of the Office's new Patent Workbench, which is now the main digital platform covering all key steps in the patent granting process. In other words, the EPO achieved in a matter of months what had been in the pipeline for decades, marking a huge leap forward.

But going digital not only created efficiency gains. It also encouraged more users to take advantage of the EPO's online services. Electronic Mailbox registrations, for example, soared by 30%, with over 1 100 new users signing up in 2020. Another major development was the large-scale switch to oral proceedings via videoconferencing (ViCo).

Although the EPO first launched oral proceedings by ViCo in examination way back in 1998, last year was ground-breaking. A total of over 2 600 oral proceedings (in examination and opposition) were conducted by ViCo in 2020, compared with less than 900 (examination only) in 2019.

A pilot on conducting oral proceedings in opposition by ViCo was also launched in May. Unfortunately, uptake of the pilot was slow. This left the EPO with a backlog that was almost 2 000 pending opposition cases higher than usual by the end of 2020 - and was perceived by some as a denial of justice. So, after a full assessment, the Office decided to extend the pilot until 15 September 2021 and make ViCo the default option for opposition.

Figure 1: Oral proceedings by ViCo at the EPO - screenshot from a mock session

In addition to supporting business continuity, using ViCo technology also makes oral proceedings more transparent and accessible to users. In July 2020, over 1 700 users attended oral proceedings in a case at the Enlarged Board of Appeal on assessing the inventiveness of computer-implemented simulations. Using digital tools to conduct the oral proceeedings effectively gave users across the globe far greater access.

Going digital isn't just about making the Office's services more efficient; it's also about expanding their reach and making them more user-friendly. The same principle applies to the EPO's digital events and training seminars. A major online event on artificial intelligence organised in December had an impressive impact, with a total of over 7 500 participants and post-event views.

Supporting users

Videoconferencing also enabled the Office to maintain close contact with users in 2020. Staying in touch is always important, but in times of crisis it's crucial. Regular exchanges via online meetings helped the Office tailor its responses to the needs of users from around the world. Thanks to videoconferencing, the IP5 offices were also able to meet remotely and work multilaterally to co-ordinate their strategic responses to COVID-19.

One of the topics frequently discussed at these meetings was the widespread disruption caused by the pandemic, and the adverse effect on the global innovation ecosystem was one of the topics to emerge at these meetings. So, to ease the financial burden on applicants when the coronavirus crisis first struck, the EPO allowed them to delay their payment of renewal fees for up to three months (ending on 31 August 2020) at no extra cost.

In response to disruptions caused by COVID-19, the Office also published notices drawing attention to the legal remedies available under the European Patent Convention (EPC) and the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) in cases of non-observance of time limits. In addition, it announced a general extension of periods for all parties and their representatives until 2 June 2020 - in view of the general dislocation in services and public life in Germany, where the EPO's headquarters are located.

The EPO also tried to help mitigate the impact of COVID-19 by leveraging the power of patent information. At the beginning of July 2020, the Office launched its "Fighting coronavirus" platform. The platform aims to offer scientists and decision-makers support in their search for solutions to combat the virus by helping them to identify key documents and innovations in a wide range of relevant technical fields. In November, the Office released its final set of search strategies covering technologies for the "new normal", including new materials, devices, sensors and even smartphone apps that help to reduce the spread of infection.

Sustainability - a silver lining

If there can be any upside to a global pandemic, for the EPO it was the sustainability gains from going digital. The Office's CO2 emissions from business travel, for example, fell by 86% in 2020 versus 2019. Thanks to homeworking and on-demand printing of search files, the Office's paper consumption also plummeted last year, with a huge saving of 58.6 million sheets of paper in 2020. By the end of the year, 97% by volume of examiner and formalities officer actions were being handled digitally. In terms of the EPO's environmental footprint, these are very positive outcomes that the Office will seek to consolidate in the future (for further details, see the Environmental Report).

Figure 3: EPO's COVID-19 response in figures

Towards the "new normal"

Finding high-impact responses to the crisis meant listening to staff and inviting them to share their experiences. To gain first-hand feedback, the EPO's President participated in virtual team meetings with over 1 350 staff during the course of 2020. To gather and analyse large-scale staff feedback in a structured way, the EPO also conducted two Office-wide staff surveys in 2020.

The first survey was conducted in May with a view to gaining a clearer understanding of how staff were coping with the crisis. A total of 85% of staff said they felt they had received the support they needed during the crisis. Their requests for additional resources resulted in the Office launching a host of online training sessions (iLearn) on topics ranging from working effectively in a digital environment to managing dispersed teams and facilitating online meetings.

In September 2020, the Office conducted a second Office-wide survey to ask staff for their views on topics such as teleworking and the future of our office buildings. Over 5 500 colleagues (86% of staff) participated in the "Towards the new normal" survey, contributing over 40 000 comments. The insights gained from the survey inform a strategy document that started taking shape at the end of 2020 and explores how the lessons learned in 2020 can be turned into opportunities for the future.

Figure 4: EPO President and senior executives meet staff at virtual team meetings

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