Q&A: Ashley Verrill on how to get at-home workers engaged with the organization

remote workerThis is a Q&A is based on a recent article written by  Software Advice CRM Analyst Ashley Verrill about How Apple gets at-home workers to work. As you know, this is an important topic because it touches on importance of employee engagement and collaboration, which is extremely important for innovation.

It is my impression that companies are starting to take notice and start their own remote worker programs, from your interaction with Apple, what challenges must other companies overcome to get the ball rolling in the right direction?

I would say developing a training program that ensures your remote team upholds the same standards and productivity as their on-premise counterparts. Hiring remote workers has a lot of perks — you have a larger talent pool to draw from (because candidates can apply from anywhere in the world), you save on the operational costs of needing more space for more people, and you have an attractive perk to offer potential employees. But all of these benefits are useless if your remote team is less effective. So, before you make any moves in this direction, make sure you have a concrete plan for training (and you can’t just send trainees a list of PowerPoints and training manuals to read).

Although Apple is known for their strong culture of innovation, what can a non-innovative company borrow/learn from Apple, and what should be the first thing they should think about?

Honestly, their training program is particularly “innovative;” it mostly borrows from best practices learned in the traditional education world. When putting together their lesson plans, teachers have to think about accommodating different kinds of learners. The same goes for training remote call center workers. Kinesthetic learners, for example, have to actually do something themselves to really absorb the material, whereas auditory learners pick up information simply by listening to instruction. To accommodate both, you need to include instruction that is truly engaging. Apple does this through live instruction that streams via video feed. The instructors periodically ask questions to trainees, or just send them live prompts they have to respond to. This ensures that (1) they are actually on the other end of the video feed, and (2) they are actually paying attention.

There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t see an article about how employee engagement is the lowest it’s ever been, in what ways can companies use work from home programs to strengthen employee engagement?

This is a really tough one. I think it all comes down to ensuring that your team understands how their work fits into the overall company mission. You need to make them feel like their work has purpose, and that they have a stake in how they do their jobs. This is particularly important for call center work, where daily activities are really routine and don’t require a whole lot of complex thinking. Gamification tools are also a really useful too for engagement.

I know of a few companies that I’ve worked with that they don’t want to use work form home programs because they’re afraid employees won’t be working. How can companies overcome the “I need to have them near me” effect of work from home programs?

There’s varying opinions on this. Some take the ROWE (Results Only Work Environment), which basically says work when you want to, how you want to, as long as you accomplish what needs to be done. This approach relinquishes a lot of the control you enjoy in an alternative environment, but it also empowers employees because you prove you trust them and they have a lot of autonomy. Call center work is a little different though because you do have so many performance metrics and employees must stay on a really tight schedule. Fortunately, there’s a lot of really good time tracking, schedule adherence, performance management and customer service software systems out there that let you monitor a lot of these activities. Additionally, with things like Skype and Google Hangouts, you can still have “face time” with remote workers through streaming video.

How is a work from home program different/similar to ROWE (Results Only Work Environment) famously used, and since stopped, by Best Buy?

Work from home can definitely use the ROWE model, but it definitely doesn’t have to. As I mentioned, there are myriad tools for monitoring people remotely, including monitoring hours worked, tasks completed, etc.. Also, with collaboration tools–systems with to-do lists, task lists, discussion threads and the like–managers can easily keep an eye on worker productivity. I think the best model for your business really depends on the type of positions you manage. For really creative, critical thinking work, ROWE can be really effective. Research has proven these kind of workers thrive in highly autonomous environments where they have the freedom to master their work in whatever way they see fit. However, for more routine jobs that have very specific standard operating procedures, a more structured work environment might be best for some companies.

Ashley VerrillAshley Verrill is a market analyst at Software Advice. She has spent the last six years reporting and writing business news and strategy features. Her work has appeared in myriad publications including Inc., Upstart Business Journal, the Austin Business Journal and the North Bay Business Journal. Before joining Software Advice in 2012, she worked in sales management and advertising. She is a University of Texas graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism.

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