Everyone Works at Home at Chorus, Part Two

In this story, the second of three parts, a small software company establishes work-at-home policies and figures out how to provide remote tech support. Part one focused on the IT infrastructure needed to support telecommuters.

Chorus, a provider of clinical, practice management and financial software for health care providers, closed its Hasbrouck Heights, N.J., headquarters in early June and its other office, in Stafford, Texas (outside of Houston), in early July; that means all of the company's 35 employees and full-time consultants work at home.

Chorus CIO Rick Boyd
Chorus CIO Rick Boyd

Rick Boyd, who is Chorus's CIO, says the company decided to close its offices to save money (an estimated $400,000 a year) and spare employees the hassle and rising cost of commuting. Chorus was able to make this move because it had much of the necessary technology and telecommunications infrastructure already in place that would allow employees to collaborate and communicate with clients. But the company also had to establish work policies designed to maintain employee productivity and customer service levels, figure out how the IT department would provide desktop support and identify software tools to make employee workloads more transparent for managers. In this second part of this story, you'll lean how Chorus addressed those challenges.

New Work Policies for a Virtual Company

Chorus developed work-at-home policies for telecommuters designed to maintain their productivity and the quality of service they provide to internal and external customers.

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One aspect of the policy pertains to employees' work at home environment. Every employee needs to have a separate space in their home that they can use for work—ideally a separate room in their house or apartment with a door that they can close to separate themselves from their kids, pets, spouses or roommates. Employees also need to have a desk where they can work, even if it's just a folding table. The company doesn't want people working in front of the TV in their living rooms with their notebook computers on their laps or coffee tables.

Another aspect of the policy outlines the work equipment Chorus will provide to employees. In short, the company provides employees with all the computing and telecommunications equipment they need to do their jobs, such as laptops, monitors, keyboards, headsets and Internet service. Client services reps get paper shredders since they have to destroy certain documents to comply with HIPAA regulations. In one case where an employee needed a chair, the company gave the employee a chair from one of its about-to-be-closed offices. Employees pay for basic office supplies like paper, ink and toner cartridges, pens and Post-It notes out-of-pocket and submit expense reports for those items for reimbursement. (For more on the equipment and expenses companies should cover for their telecommuting employees see, Out of Pocket: Financial Questions for Telecommuters and Managers.)

Chorus also set up a policy on work hours. Employees have to be at their desks in their home offices during normal business hours. They can't opt to work odd hours. All employees have to use instant messaging (IM) applications, and they have to put their phone numbers and their IM handle in the global address list on company's Microsoft Exchange Server. (Read about the flexible work policies at healthcare provider CareGroup and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts.)

In addition to the general work policies at Chorus, Marvin Luz, vice president of client services, says his group had specific, common-sense rules it had to follow. For example, they can't have TVs or stereos on in the background. Nor can they eat while on the phone with customers. These rules are meant to send the message that even though employees work from the casual confines of their homes, they must maintain a certain level of professional decorum while on the clock.

Every employee had to agree to and sign off on all of these policies. Existing policies, such as those pertaining to computer and internet usage, remained in place.

How to Provide Remote Tech Support

One question that lingered in Chorus employees' minds through this transition was how the company was going to provide tech support. What if a virus infected someone's computer or an application crashed? After all, even though the company maintains a data center in New Jersey, its IT staff also works from home and visits it on an as-needed basis. It's not like a help desk staffer can walk over to someone's desk to troubleshoot and fix problems.

The processes the IT group put in place to resolve technical support issues remotely aren't much different from the measures they took when an employee was working at a client's office and needed help from an IT staffer in New Jersey or Texas.

For example, if an employee is having a software problem—if they get an error message or they can't connect to a particular drive—Aron Schneider, who works in Boyd's IT department, says IT simply takes control of their computer using remote desktop software like iTivity or by setting up a WebEx meeting. Boyd says Chorus uses WebEx extensively to shadow clients and remote workers when troubleshooting and as a teaching and collaboration tool. "If there is something we are trying to resolve or accomplish (loading Citrix at a client site, for example), the team will get on the WebEx and we will talk through the activity. This is a good way of keeping contact and providing training and knowledge transfer," he says.

If an employee's hard drive crashes, the IT staff replaces it with a loaner laptop it has preconfigured with all the basic software apps the employee needs to function. "If they're close enough where I can drive it out to them, I can make a swap," says Schneider. "If they're on site with a client or in New Jersey, we FedEx it to them, and they send their laptop to us."

Schneider couldn't say how having to wait to get a replacement laptop would impact employees' productivity because at that point he said no one had needed a replacement computer. Boyd said most employees would still be able to check e-mail on their home computers and use their cell phones to make calls, but he is aware that having to wait for a replacement laptop could temporarily impair the customer support team. To speed software downloads in the event IT needs to get a fully configured replacement computer to an employee, Boyd is looking for a software-based WAN accelerator.

Boyd says that he hasn't received any complaints from managers about poor tech support now that everyone in IT is working from home. "I gauge most of what I do by the number of complaints I get as head of IT, and I haven't had a lot of issues other than, 'It's really tough for me as a developer to move a big file.'"

The CIO adds that all of the development, testing and quality assurance is done through a corporate Citrix farm using a Microsoft SQL backend.

Chorus's experience shows that providing remote desktop support is not impossible. It just involves some planning and workarounds.

End of Part Two

Other Parts in this Series

Read other stories in this series:

Part 1: Chorus's technology infrastructure

Part 3: Managers and staff adjust to telecommuting

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