Most mobile technologies enable workers to be more productive when they are out of the office, but marketing services company Salmat’s Contact Centre Solutions group has taken the concept a step further.
Jacob Murray-White manages a team of 300 contact centre staff who never come into the office and, in many instances, whom he has never physically met.
Salmat created Salmat@Home within its SalesForce outsourcing division three years ago. The team uses Citrix remote desktop technology to provide workers with access to its contact centre application from anywhere they can get a broadband connection, with calls routed over the telephone network. The result is a virtual call centre staffed by home-based workers scattered from Geraldton in Western Australia to Far North Queensland.
Murray-White says that while the idea of telecommuting has existed for more than a decade, it took until 2007 for the technology to mature.
“Using something like Citrix makes it easy to provide a remote secure desktop to somebody in a remote location, so long as they have a broadband internet connection and a relatively standard computer,” he says. “There is a bit of a myth that there is no regional broadband in Australia. The location of our contractors shows that is not as true as people might think it is.”
The result is that Salmat@Home is able to use the skills of people in locations where it would have previously been unthinkable to open an office. Staff can live where they choose, rather than needing to live near their place of employment.
“We are attracting people from anywhere there is broadband infrastructure in Australia,” Murray-White says. “We haven’t advertised for almost two years now, but we have a list of 300 people who all want to work in our environment.
We haven’t advertised for almost two years now, but we have a list of 300 people who all want to work in our environment
“We have people who have developed their skills in the city and gone home to have families. It allows them to participate in the workforce remotely, on their own terms.”
The flexible conditions also means contractors are not inconvenienced should they move. In one instance Murray-White says a contractor previously based in north Queensland, who had to relocated to Melbourne for family reasons, was back online from his parent’s home office and completed his OHS requirements within a day.
Next: Teleworking into the future
Salmat is not alone in its drive towards teleworking, although it is on the leading edge. Analyst firm Gartner believes that 46.6 million corporate employees globally will spend at least one day a week teleworking by 2011, and 112 million will work from home at least one day a month.
Gartner’s research director of enterprise mobility, Robin Simpson, says there is a lot of push from employees for more flexible working conditions, particularly from those who are looking to move away from the major cities. What is making it possible, however, is the increased capability of home computers and faster broadband speeds at lower prices.
“All of the technology pieces are coming together,” Simpson says. “And a lot of employees today have better equipment at home than they get issued at work.”
He expects this move to accelerate with the arrival of the National Broadband Network.
“The advent of the NBN will turn on quite a strong move to telework and part-time work from home. There are a lot more pleasant places that one could live if we had better broadband.”
The Salmat@Home model requires workers to supply their own desktop PC and broadband connection, but Murray-White is keen to point out that the lightweight nature of the Citrix protocols means that no worker has ever exceeded their monthly broadband download quota.
In addition to the technical considerations, Simpson says the other great roadblock to teleworking is management systems — and attitudes. It can be quite difficult for a traditional IT organisation to support multiple platforms.
“In the consumer technology world platforms are changing dramatically all the time, so it is a new world for IT departments to support consumer gear and the incredibly rapid rate of change,” Simpson says. “We see that with smartphones, where models change every year or two. IT needs to define a framework for policy and the levels of support that end users can receive depending on the choices that they make.
“The one remaining blocker is management attitudes. In order to make a lot of this stuff happen you actually have to retrain managers to understand how to manage people remotely. And it’s not simple stuff.”
Simpson says that many organisations that have pursued teleworking have done so in conjunction with extensive OHS consultation, including sending OHS officers to home offices to advise on setting them up with the right sitting position and the right lighting.
Murray-White says OHS was one of the greatest considerations when setting up the Salmat@Home model.
“We’ve put a lot of effort into ensuring that our policies and procedures around that are solid,” Murray-White says. “There has been massive growth in workforce mobility, and the OHS issues around that haven’t really been addressed by anyone. We have developed a really robust policy around that.”
Many managers have lamented the impact that social media tools such as Facebook have had on productivity, but Murray-White contends they have provided a benefit by helping people understand the concept that you can maintain relationships with people you never see nor speak to.
“That has helped knock down one of the last remaining barriers to virtual communities, and [spread] the knowledge that you can interact with people in a virtual manner only,” Murray-White says. “You can maintain very good relationships and interactions with people even though you never see them.”
But not everyone is so easily convinced, he adds.
“From a technology perspective this is not on the cutting edge at all, but it is from a management perspective.
“I just learned recently that I didn’t win a piece of business because the client couldn’t cope with the idea of having a support centre they couldn’t touch.”