Remote work doesn’t have to be glamorous to be effective

Is remote work only for a select few? What demographic data we have on the phenomenon from the Telework Research Network has found existing telecommuters tend to be older, well paid and highly educated professionals. Meanwhile, a recent study suggested that while remote work boosted productivity on creative tasks, it generally reduced it for boring, rote activities.
These findings could suggest that remote work is best suited for senior-level folks and the highly educated – the designers, programmers and content producers that many of us generally picture when asked to imagine laptop-toting virtual workers. But outsides of cafes in places like San Francisco, there’s a whole other side of the remote work revolution going on, one that’s focused on lower skilled employees like customer service agents who are seeing their place of work move from call centers to home offices and living rooms.
Take Hertz’s “Journey to Home” program as an example. The rental car company originally housed its customer service agents in an Oklahoma City call center, but over the last few years has been transitioning to have nearly half of its agents working out of their homes. Why?
“From a disaster recovery perspective, if you put all your eggs in one basket, especially when that basket sits in the center of the United States where a lot of natural disasters can happen, you put yourself at risk for major interruptions to the business, so we decided that it would be good to have another center of gravity,” Joe Eckroth, Hertz’s CIO, told GigaOM.
Secondarily, he explains, “as you begin to mature a market where you’re already drawing a lot of the workforce, competition starts to rise. In Oklahoma City, a lot more call centers are coming in. Remote work allowed us to broaden the pool of people we could draw from. It’s allowed us to attract students, part-time workers, full-time people who couldn’t necessarily, because of life circumstances, travel every day to go to work.”
What started as a disaster preparedness and recruitment initiative has had plenty of side benefits, according to Eckroth. “It has exceeded our expectations for sure,” he says. “The actual performance results on the sales side and on the customer service side were in all categories as good as we were getting in a tightly managed call center and in I would say about half the metrics they were a little bit better — places like employee satisfaction. Productivity is as high and in some cases higher,” he says, and that’s not even including the sustainability gains from so many saved car trips (and the bonus to employees from not having to buy so much gas at about four dollars a gallon.)
Hertz’s experience shows that less glamorous remote initiatives can work, but Eckroth stresses that success requires careful thought and planning. “We took some of our best and brightest people and we made it their sole mission to make it work,” he says. “It wasn’t a part-time job. It wasn’t something on the side.” Hertz’s experience shows getting highly motivated, highly communicative managers is key, but so is getting the right employees, and they aren’t necessarily the same people who would thrive in a traditional call center.
“Anybody can try to work from home, but it takes a certain set of disciplines. It takes a different mentality for somebody to stay motivated, to be undistracted and succeed at home. If you just took the average guy in the call center and sent them home, there would probably be a fairly high failure rate,” Eckroth says, noting that in fact some of the Oklahoma City call center’s star employees tried remote work and subsequently requested to return “to the box,” as Eckroth refers to it.
To make sure Hertz hires folks with the right combination of a self-starter mentality and basic tech savvy, the company has set up a detailed profile of the kind of person it’s seeking, putting candidates through thorough testing to make sure they have the skills to succeed. “I don’t think we knew how different the hiring profile might be,” Eckroth admits. “We didn’t modify our initial hiring process enough to accommodate that, and so that’s something we learned pretty quickly over the course of the first year or so. We changed our competency model.”
Besides figuring out exactly what you’re looking for in at-home agents and testing stringently to make sure candidates have these qualities, is there any other recommendations Eckroth has for other firms contemplating taking agents out of the box and sending them home? “Benchmark,” Eckroth suggests, noting that more and more firms are taking a remote approach and have wisdom to share. “Go out and talk to some people who have done it and get their lessons learned.”
Also, ensure no one feels like an afterthought. “This is a part of the organization. Treat it as such. Agents at home are every bit as important as the guys sitting in the box. I do a periodic video for all agents in our customer care, but once in a while I will uniquely do it just for the at-home agents with a specific message to them. Call them out and recognize them for some of the unique things they do. They should always know that they’re a part of a thought-out strategy. Pull in some of the really good people. They can come in for a few days or a week and work on special projects. It makes them feel that much more part of the team and not like they’re just a contractor out there. If that mentality builds, you’ll begin to create a second-class citizenship and that can be a disaster.”
Should more companies consider letting their less highly skilled employees skip the drive in to the office and just stay home?  
Image courtesy of Flickr user mrkathika