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Ten Minutes with Jack Heacock - Industry Expert

As always-on connectivity changes the way we work, remote workers are emerging as the workforce of tomorrow. Jack Heacock, senior vice president of The Telework Coalition (TelCoa), a leading telework, education and advocacy organization, shares how a distributed workforce benefits employers, employees and communities.You’re one of the co-founders of the Telework Coalition. Tell me about your career and the organization.

I earned a scholarship to Valley Forge Military Academy & College, as well as to the University of Delaware, which lead to becoming a commissioned officer in the Army’s Signal Corps.  Building upon the telecommunications training and experiences gained in Asia, Europe, and North America, I became a project director for Amtrak. There, I refurbished, built, and outfitted railroad infrastructure facilities and incorporated increasingly sophisticated enabling technologies, including on-line nationwide personnel/payroll systems; reservation-sales, and improved enterprise-wide general office functions.

When technologies such as broadband communications and business-critical applications progressed to the point that a ‘desk top’ was available at the home office level, it became apparent that ‘we could do this’ (Work@Home™) and all employers, employees, and the community would benefit.

We formed The Telework Coalition, TelCoa so others could benefit from our distributed work experiences and to encourage the adoption of this new way of working for the betterment of everyone.  Founders of TelCoa created ‘Telework America Day’, proposed state proclamations, created the ‘Telework Hall of Fame’ award program, and have contributed to many articles and books (notably Home Workplace by Brendan Read), and the very first comprehensive eWork Guide (circa October 2000) while helping organizations implement telework programs.  

While it has been a difficult ‘sell’ in many industries and within the public sector, the benefits of telework have now become so compelling that even the ‘Doubting Thomas’s’ with vested interest in ‘status quo’ industrial era transportation solutions are beginning to understand and implement telework programs.

The Telework Coalition’s mission and goals are best summed up as enabling and supporting virtual, mobile, and distributed work through research, education, technology, and legislation. We acquire information through many means, disseminate it to our members, review and assess technologies that facilitate the implementation or expansion of telework programs (such as different means of  broadband Internet access, both fixed and wireless, secure remote access solutions, video and other emerging forms of collaboration, personal communications devices, etc.), and work with federal, state, and local legislators to encourage legislation favorable to telework.

Data shows that the number of at-home workers is on the rise. What’s driving the trend?

Return on Investment! Organizations with telework programs can reduce facilities and overhead expenses, pay new hires less in base salary (as much as 13 percent has been observed), as well as recruit and retain higher quality employees. Studies have shown that employers in almost any field will realize annual savings averaging over $20,000 per full time teleworking employee.

According to the Yankee Group’s August 2006 survey of 350 U.S. and Canadian call centers, 24% of their agents or 674,000 full and part-time individuals were  working from their homes. Based upon the growth rates exhibited in TelCoa member organizations, we estimate that number to have grown to over 30% of the North American market and anticipate an increase to half of the North American agent population working from their homes by 2012.

Organizations that implement telework programs gain effective business continuity and disaster avoidance capabilities. That’s because at-home workers provide an insurance policy against events that cannot be controlled. For example, when Hurricane Katrina hit, banks that had call centers with agents equipped to work at home, didn’t worry about temporarily losing a contact center because they were in the path of the hurricane. With home agents, they were able to receive calls and sustain business continuity.  Telework is a key component of the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza to minimize the impact of spreading viruses, including the current H1N1 virus and its potential impacts on the nation.

Also driving the trend is the quality of service achieved through homeshoring/ homesourcing.  Work at home programs deliver greater agent productivity, improve customer satisfaction, reduce training costs, decrease absenteeism and increase retention. They also provide an $8,400 indirect pay raise to at home employees.

That number is calculated by looking at the expenses employees no longer incur when they transition to an at-home model. For example, if you start off with the idea that an employee drives from home to work, and the average round trip is about 38 miles, it costs the employee in money for gas to get to work – and still costs something if they opt for subsidized public transportation. If the employee is no longer commuting to work, they can contact their insurance carrier and say their vehicle is no longer driven to work daily and is putting on fewer miles annually. Their insurance rate goes down as does maintenance costs. Other savings include reduced cost for lunches, less need for up-scale work clothing, and extended childcare costs.

While a majority of  the initial large scale success stories for Work@Home programs were found within the call center industry (both in-house and outsourced), their ‘bottom-line benefits’ have inspired both ground-up and top-down adoption around the globe. Besides, telework just makes sense to companies and individuals looking to not only survive the present economic downturn, but also avoid lay-offs while positioning themselves as leaders in the Information Age Economy of the 21st Century.

What are the advantages for organizations that embrace a work-at-home model? How do employees benefit?  How do Communities?

TelCoa has published a list of the top ten reasons for a virtual workforce:

For the employer and the economy:

Improves the ability to recruit and retain skilled labor for enhanced productivity, creativity, and higher quality work from anywhere in the US.

Provides the necessary competitive advantage and the ability to Win in an increasingly regionalized/globalized economy by repatriating many of the hundreds of thousands of jobs that have been sent offshore.

It reduces real estate, facilities, and other overhead expenses.

For the Employee:

Increases work/life balance, empowers them to become self reliant, reduces stress, enables them the opportunity to participate in local activities, further one’s education, etc.

Retain a larger percentage of earnings for a higher quality of life.

Provides hope and economic opportunity (especially in rural areas) for all workers and expands these opportunities to include service disabled veterans, others with disabilities, older workers who desire to remain in or need to reenter the workforce due to reduced retirement funds caused by the current economic conditions, and for part-time employment, reducing reliance on costly publicly funded benefit programs.

For the Environment and within Communities:

Lowers carbon footprints, greenhouse gas emissions, and improves air quality.

It reduces dependency on foreign energy, especially petroleum products.

Fewer traffic accidents, less congestion, and reduces the need for maintaining costly transportation infrastructures.

A virtual workforce decreases the impact from occurrences ranging from terrorist attacks, natural incidents such as severe weather conditions, pandemics, transit strikes, and bridge collapses to everyday situations such as family needs, traffic congestion, and car trouble, through the use of a widely dispersed workforce.

As organizations move to an at-home model, they face new challenges in managing their workforce. What technologies should organizations consider to keep their remote workforce productive?

They should consider Software-as-a-Service and Hosted Solutions that integrate technologies with operational models. It is too much to expect that small and medium size organizations can (or need to) develop their own models and implementation plans. With these technologies you pay for what you need, have instant scalability available, and have someone else keep the newest, best and most proven technology in play without requiring the investment of capital costs.

Workforce management solutions that have time and attendance functionality can also improve at home worker productivity. The ideal way to improve efficiency, drive greater productivity and boost morale and worker satisfaction is to offer employees the ability to self schedule. In the call center environment, it’s not only good from an agent point of view, but from a company’s perspective. No matter how good projections are for projecting incoming calls, it’s impossible to get it exactly right. Work@Home agents can quickly be added to handle spikes in customer calls.

The best thing that’s come along has been the remote Work@Home agent. Because there are numerous operations set up with the ability to allow people to self schedule, they can also efficiently accommodate part-time and split-shift work. This is ideal for companies looking to optimize productivity, reduce agent fatigue, preserve quality of voice and deliver better customer service, while reducing expenses.

The easiest place to implement a telework program has been in the call center industry because of ACD technology and their early adoption of software-as-a service (SAAS) applications, and the success of work-at-home programs has been demonstrated. Greater productivity, increased customer satisfaction, and reduced absenteeism have been noticed at the executive level. All of a sudden, those same executives are saying “if we can do this with our customer service division, why can't we do it with the actuarial or accounts payable and other ‘back office’ enterprise level departments? Our people are sitting at a terminal and talking on a phone, they can do that from their homes.”

What are some best practices organizations should implement for a successful work at home program?

We developed a list of critical tips for telework success which was featured in a report from the International Customer Management Institute. The first step is developing a strategy and detailed implementation plan. Organizations should get expert assistance with their plan and should assign a corporate champion for program coordination with the executive staff and board of directors. This needs to involve key people from various departments within the organization such as HR, IT, Operations, Finance, Legal etc.

Companies should use predictive screening technologies such as assessments to ensure they hire the right candidates for telework and they should conduct virtually all home-agent selection and training online. They should also use just-in time training technology and methodologies and deliver critical business applications via the Web. In addition, they should use metrics, reports and tools that are available from technology solutions to improve workforce productivity.

Other best practices include paying home agents a slightly lower rate of pay, recognizing they will net more take-home pay when subtracting the cost of transportation, insurance, clothing, meals, etc.; incorporating part time and split shift work as part of a new agent self scheduling package; using technology for situations that previously required asking a nearby coworker or referring the call to a supervisor and having a back up plan and multiple channels of communication. It’s also imperative to develop documented processes and procedures that address power outages, equipment malfunctions and other issues unique to the distributed work environment. Employers should insist on similar security and safety procedures at home as they would in the centralized traditional brick and mortar office.

You’ve worked out of your home for 15 years. Tell me about your home office and some tips our readers might be able to employ in their own home work environment.

jack's office

My home office has industrial grade furnishing, areas for storage, a high quality leather chair, proper lighting and the technology I need for connectivity and productivity. People transitioning to an at home workplace should make sure there is sufficient space to dedicate for a home office and incorporate ergonomic furniture for safety and for a high productivity work environment.

Home office ergonomics and safety is too often overlooked.  Employers should consider ergonomics because they still have the same legal obligations to provide a safe working environment at home, just as they would in traditional centralized offices. That gets a little cloudy when the Work@Home policies, processes, and procedures do not include home office safety.

We advise HR to establish parameters and guidelines, get employees to agree to certain standards, and submit a digital photo of their home office to show it complies with the agreed company requirements.