In this story, the third of three parts, managers and staff at a small software company adjust to telecommuting and share their keys to success. Part One focused on the network infrastructure. Part Two covered work at home policies.
By Meridith Levinson
In early June, Chorus, a provider of clinical, practice management and financial software for healthcare providers, closed its headquarters in Hasbrouck Heights, N.J. A month later, the company closed its other office, in Stafford, Texas (outside of Houston). Now all of the company’s employees work at home.
Chorus’s decision to close its offices and have its employees telecommute was driven by a need to cut costs and spare its employees the rising expense and hassle of commuting. (The company’s CIO, Rick Boyd, drove 48 miles a day between his home in Westchester County, N.Y., and his office in Hasbrouck Heights.) The decision has meant adjustments for all of the company’s 35 employees and full-time consultants.
Chorus’s transformation into a virtual company is expected to save about $400,000 a year on costs like office space. The transition to become a company staffed with telecommuters hasn’t been flawless, but none of the technical and cultural hurdles the company has encountered at this point have proven insurmountable.
Chorus established work policies designed to maintain employee productivity and customer service levels. It is using technology to make workloads more transparent for managers, to transfer knowledge among staff, provide training and to bring employees together. The IT department, whose members also work from home, only visiting a data center in New Jersey when necessary, also figured out efficient ways to provide remote tech support.
In this article, Boyd and other Chorus employees share the challenges they’ve experienced adjusting to telecommuting and the lessons they’ve learned thus far.
Adjustments to Telecommuting Include Periodic Meetups, Daily Conference Calls
Although most employees were delighted to start telecommuting, adjusting to the new lifestyle took more time for employees in Marvin Luz’s client services department. The vice president of client services says his staff began e-mailing him to ask if they were ever going to go back into the office two weeks after they all began telecommuting. They missed the social contact, he says.
“You have to understand the dynamics of a person who is in customer service,” says Luz. “They’re very social creatures, and being in an office fills that social need we have.”
Luz decided to bring his staff back into the Houston office two days week. “We did that for three weeks,” he says. Then his group went down to one day in the office a week for a few weeks. Now they’re all back to working from home five days a week, and they all feel much more comfortable with the arrangement having gone through that transition period, says Luz.
Luz believes his staff had trouble adjusting to the new lifestyle because they couldn’t get into a routine at home. Once they settled into a rhythm, the change became much easier. (For information on the skills telecommuters need to develop to effectively work remotely, see, Telecommuters Need to Develop Special Skills.) Luz plans to organize get-togethers for his group every quarter so that they can meet socially. CEO A.J. Schreiber is also planning quarterly, in-person outings for New Jersey and Texas staffers so that employees can maintain personal connections.
Luz notes that if he were to go through this transition again, he wouldn’t have his staff go “cold turkey” from cubicle life at first. He would have started with a transition period.
Some employees outside of client services were also wary of telecommuting. As much as Aron Schneider was excited to work from home, the IT staffer was concerned he’d be distracted by his TV and the contents of his fridge, and that he’d be bored without any co-workers around.
Schneider quickly realized he didn’t have to worry. His home office is far enough away from both the TV and refrigerator. Some days he doesn’t eat lunch until two or three in the afternoon because he’s so busy, he says.
As for the social contact, he communicates regularly with his team. The IT department has a conference call every day, and Schneider keeps in touch with individual co-workers over the phone and via e-mail. “If I need to get in touch with any of the DBAs, they are readily available,” he says. “I really don’t see that anything has changed working from home other than proximity.”
How Managers Learned to Love IM
Many companies resist flexible work arrangements that involve telecommuting because their managers don’t know how to manage staff who work remotely and because they don’t like the idea of not being able to see the people they manage. (See also Telecommuting Gets a Bad Rap.)
Indeed, the adjustment to telecommuting may be hardest on managers since they’re the ones who need to fundamentally change the way they do their work of managing. But those companies that don’t allow telecommuting because they believe it’s harder to measure employees’ productivity when they telecommute are making a weak excuse, says Luz.
“In today’s companies where you are so wired and connected, giving the excuse that you can’t measure someone’s productivity doesn’t fly with me,” he says. “In a call center environment like my group, there are so many tools to measure productivity.”
Specifically, the dashboard that’s part of Chorus’s Cisco call center system shows Luz when his call center workers are logged in, when they’re on a call, when they’re on break, the duration of their calls, whether they answered calls that went to their extension, the number of calls they took each hour and whether calls were abandoned. The VP can even listen in on calls, interrupt calls and record them.
Luz also uses Salesforce.com as the client services group’s case management system for tracking customers’ problems. Through the dashboard on Salesforce.com, Luz can see every account manager’s queue and the number of cases they’ve opened and closed. He says his staff has been “more productive from home than we ever dreamed they would be.”
CEO Schreiber concurs. He says the client services group’s key performance indicators have been “stellar” and that the company as a whole is more productive.
The IT group uses Salesforce.com, too. (In fact, the entire company uses the system). Boyd says Salesforce.com gives him a “right now” view of what is happening in his department, but since the software isn’t geared toward an IT shop, he can’t see what his team has done two days ago, a week ago or last month. To get visibility into his staff’s workloads, the CIO holds a daily, hour-long meeting to review and coordinate everyone’s activities.
Boyd also uses an instant messaging (IM) system to keep tabs on his IT staff. “Since you don’t see someone walk in the door every day, when you see them become active on IM, you know they’re up and ready for business,” he says. Boyd realizes that employees can log into IM, or any system for that matter, and then walk away from their computer, so he pings members of his staff every once in a while to keep them honest.
Not that he needs to keep his employees on their toes. Boyd says his staff’s productivity—as measured by the number of cases they close—has increased dramatically since they began working at home. Everyone is working longer hours because they don’t have to commute.
“I’ll start answering e-mail at six in the morning, and I don’t get up from my desk, with the exception of getting something to eat, until six in the evening,” says Boyd, who adds that he often gets work-related instant messages from his staff even at 8 P.M.
IM goes a long way toward helping the entire company stay connected. Employees and managers alike use it to discuss work issues and to chat informally. Sometimes IM can be a pain, says Boyd, such as when he gets four simultaneous pings when he’s on the phone or trying to concentrate, but overall, he thinks its an excellent replacement for the water cooler and for yelling over the cubicle wall.
Clearly, productivity and its measurement is not the problem for Chorus. The soft side of management, however, is more difficult and requires more effort.
Luz says he has to make a concerted effort to reach out to employees and see how they’re faring. “I call them each individually throughout the week to chat with them about how things are going, how their families are doing. You need that type of social interaction with employees,” he says, adding that this type of interaction was easier in the office. “I also need to make sure that I have them reach out to each other. I have been calling them and saying, ‘Have you talked with the senior account manager?'”
In addition to the informal phone calls, Luz conducts formal group WebEx meetings twice a week to make sure everyone has everything they need.
Both Luz and Boyd say the experiences of working from home and managing a staff of telecommuters have improved their management and communication skills.
“I’m not sure I’d say it made me a better manager per se, but it has made me a better communicator,” says Boyd.
How Chorus Keeps Everyone in the Loop
Since Chorus employees began telecommuting in June 2008, the provider of practice management systems for community health centers has established a series of meetings and communications designed to align employees around top business priorities and keep everyone on the same page. Here’s a list of what Chorus does:
1. Daily morning executive team meetings. The vice presidents and CEO have a conference call every day to discuss high priority items, issues and projects such as technical work, systems implementations, customer support, client implementations, development and quality assurance. As a team, they affirm what needs to be done that day, the following day, the next week and longer term.
2. Daily morning reports. This report goes out to the entire company every day and compiles all of the internal and client projects that each team inside the company is working on. The daily morning report gives non-executive staff visibility into high and lower-priority activity inside the company and let’s each group see how their work fits into each project.
3. Daily infrastructure team call. CIO Rick Boyd and his DBAs, application support team and IT infrastructure support team review the items that came up during the morning executive team meeting to ensure that everyone in IT has what they need to meet the daily and weekly objectives.
Next: Lessons Learned and Keys to Success
Lessons from a Virtual Company, and Keys to Success
In spite of the few challenges Chorus has encountered, its transformation into a virtual company has proceeded so smoothly that its customers don’t even know the company has closed its offices and all employees are working from home. (Of course, that cat’s out of the bag now.)
“As someone from customer service, I measure success based on whether our clients have noticed anything,” says Luz. “Our clients haven’t felt any interruption or noticed something is different in the way we’re handling things. That tells me this process is working extremely well.”
Even if your company is not planning to close all of its offices, it can still learn a great deal from Chorus’s experience about how to support and manage telecommuters—the number one lesson being that it isn’t all that difficult. The keys to success, as Chorus’s experience shows, are proper equipment and technology, careful planning as to how employees will provide tech support and customer support, workload transparency, trial runs in telecommuting, help establishing a routine for working from home, and the occasional in-person meeting to keep everyone together and their spirits up.
All of that effort at Chorus has led to productivity and service improvements—not to mention the annual cost savings.
“We’ve been able to quantify that we are more productive now than when we had physical offices,” says Boyd. “Our number of open cases has reduced dramatically and the time it takes to resolve them has been reduced dramatically. It truly has been a byproduct of going 100 percent virtual.”