Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Worried about working-from-home issues? Trial it.

mums@work helps organisations implement family friendly working solutions.
Running a pilot program to identify potential issues can help an organisation decide whether working from home arrangements should be made broadly available, says the manager of a team that now has two-thirds of its employees in home-based work, and much higher retention rates as a result.

Tim Wainwright, who manages a team of 130 staff at Aegis Australia, says 90 of these people telework, including up to 70 on any given day. Some work from home exclusively, while others spread their time between home and the office.

The workers - engaged as contact centre agents performing "back office" tasks for utility client Jemena - do identical work to that of their peers in the office, he says.

Before rolling out the scheme across the division, Aegis conducted a pilot program involving 10 staff. This was primarily to assess the technology issues that might arise, given a crucial requirement of staff is to be contactable and connected to the system at all times.

The trial ran for about six months, during which time Aegis "ironed out technology bugs, telephoney problems, and internet service provider problems", Wainwright says.

One issue the pilot identified was that, "people coming into the office know how to do the job that they're doing, but they're not necessarily computer literate. They don't know the ins and outs of networking, and installing applications. The environment we run - Citrix - is fairly well controlled, but they still have to install software at home. So it was a matter of documenting all the problems [the workers in the pilot] faced and ensuring that the manuals we send them home with will actually step them through things precisely".

At Aegis, teleworkers have to meet their own costs of setting up workstations, and must follow a 26-point checklist of "minimum requirements" or teleworking, regarding safety and technology (see
related article). Wainwright says this meant some employees had to invest in their home workspace, "but [they] decided that the benefits they're going to get from working from home, financially, are going to more than offset the costs to them".    

Retention rates more than doubled
The attrition rate in the Aegis team with remote access has run around seven per cent over the past 12 months, Wainwright says, compared to 20 per cent for the balance of that particular call centre. He calls the result "staggering" for an industry with a traditionally high churn rate.

Based on this, he would be happy to give the entire division remote access, but due to the nature of the work - involving a 24/7 contact centre for electricity faults and emergencies - "operating fully remote is risky from the point of view of the agents' business continuity at home; a generator and UPS are mission-critical".

Wainwright attributes the high retention to the increased flexibility employees have when teleworking. "They can work hours to suit their own requirements, although there are of course some limitations," he says. (Workers must contact their team leader daily, and sign an agreement stipulating their start and finish parameters, and KPIs - see
related article.)

"The big advantage for most of our workers is that they don't have to commute to work. This can save some employees more than 10 hours every week. They also save on travel expenses, parking, and our carbon footprint as a company is reduced."    

"Team" time still important
Although working remotely, the teleworkers are still very much part of a team and are required to attend the office for briefings, to discuss things like systems problems and process changes.

"They still have to work together with their team. While they may be working from home on a task, their task is interdependent, usually before they get it and then after it leaves them. So it's very important to keep open lines of communication amongst the team, and that they know who they're working with on a day to day basis, so they have the appropriate amount of rapport with them, and they can pick up the phone and say 'Hey, this has come to me - what's the situation?'" Wainwright says.

"Usually when they have team briefs, they haven't seen each other for up to a month. They might do lunch at the same time, so it becomes a social event for them as well. Everyone gets to sit down and have a chat, do the business as well but then also have a bit of socialising at the same time."    

Lessons learned
Aegis has learned that teleworking tends not to suit extroverted personalities who enjoy socialising at work, and has warned workers who fit this bill that the arrangements might not be sustainable for them.

"We've had people we've talked to about that before they've gone home, because we know what their personality is like, and we've said, 'Don't feel that if it doesn't work for you you're a failure'. We understand that it's not for everyone; we've had people who've done it for a few weeks and said they can't deal with the solitude - it's too quiet. Sitting there staring at a computer screen all day doesn't necessarily bode well for them," Wainwright says.

Teleworking does suit an older demographic, he says. "Our average age is much higher than a typical call centre... We've got a lot of mothers, a fairly high proportion of our people are over 40." The more "transient" workers typically found in call centres "tend not to have the focus that we need".

He says teleworking could be an option for "pretty much any organisation where the key tasks are systems-based".

"As soon as you start involving a lot of paperwork, and faxes, it gets more challenging."

Source: hr daily

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