How a small software company is saving money, reducing employee stress and improving productivity and customer satisfaction by closing its offices and going virtual. The first of three parts.
By Meridith Levinson
Rick Boyd used to spend $500 a month on gas and tolls commuting 48 miles a day between his home in Westchester County, N.Y., and his office in Hasbrouck Heights, N.J. Now Boyd doesn’t commute any more because his company, Chorus, which provides clinical, practice management and financial software for health care providers, has gone virtual.
Chorus closed its Hasbrouck Heights headquarters in early June and its other office, in Stafford, Texas (outside of Houston), in early July. Now all of the company’s 35 employees and full-time consultants work at home, and for the most part, they love it.
Boyd, who is Chorus’s CIO, says the company decided to close its offices to save money and spare employees the hassle and rising cost of commuting and because it had the necessary technology to support such a move. President and CEO A.J. Schreiber says Chorus can continue to serve customers while simultaneously saving $400,000 a year simply by closing its 15,000 square feet of office space. Sure, breaking leases and telecom contracts is costing the company money, but the long-term savings far outweigh those short-term costs, says Schreiber. “We wouldn’t have done this if it would have had a negative impact on our ability to serve customers,” he adds.
In making the bold move to close its offices and go virtual, Chorus demonstrates the positive bottom-line results that stem from applying workplace flexibility as a business strategy, says Cali Williams Yost, president and founder of consultancy Work+Life Fit. “Flexibility is a strategy for managing your business,” she says. “It helps you recruit and retain talent and manage resources like real estate. There are more and more companies realizing you don’t need to be in the same place every minute of every day.”
Chorus’s transformation into a virtual company staffed with telecommuters hasn’t been flawless, but none of the hurdles the company has encountered at this point have proven insurmountable. Through research, planning and some trial-and-error, the company addressed many of the cultural challenges associated with telecommuting and managing virtual workforces.
Chorus established work policies designed to maintain employee productivity and customer service levels. The company is using technology to make workloads more transparent for managers, to transfer knowledge among staff, provide training and to enable them to collaborate. The IT department, whose members also works at home, also figured out efficient ways to provide remote tech support. Here, Boyd and other Chorus employees share the challenges they’ve experienced and the lessons they’ve learned thus far in the course of their company’s transformation.
The first lesson is that you need the right infrastructure to support a virtual, telecommuting set of employees.
The Infrastructure and Equipment to Support Telecommuting
Marvin Luz had serious concerns about Chorus becoming a virtual company. The vice president of client services thought the transition was going to be a lot of work, and he wondered how the company would get through it.
“I was a little apprehensive,” says Luz. “There’s something to be said for being in an office and the security blanket of having your coworkers right next to you if you have questions.”
Foremost on the client services exec’s mind was Chorus’s ability to meet its customers’ needs with a staff of telecommuters. The company had to figure out how customer support calls would be routed to agents at their homes and in such a way that clients wouldn’t know that the agent to whom they were speaking was working from home.
Chorus already had in place much of the telecommunications infrastructure it would need to support telecommuters, including a firewall and VPN. In 2007, CIO Boyd deployed a voice over IP (VoIP) solution from Cisco that included Cisco’s IP Communicator and a high-end router in the company’s New Jersey data center, which remains in operation, with staff visiting as needed. He also added a Windows Active Directory server (Chorus already had two in its office outside Houston) and two T1 lines to the New Jersey data center. Boyd says all of this technology made it easier for Chorus to go virtual. (For more on the technologies necessary to communicate telecommuters see, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Telecommuting.”)
In preparation for the company’s transformation, Boyd and his seven-person staff deployed the IP Communicators on every employee’s laptop. Employees use the IP Communicators to make and receive phone calls.
The IT department ran into trouble when it first began deploying the IP Communicators on everyone’s laptops. Because it was new technology for the company, Boyd and his staff weren’t sure how to set it up at first. They were also just coming up to speed on the voice over IP system. Boyd says the first few deployments of the IP Communicators were very difficult, but once he and his staff got more comfortable with the technology, it went more smoothly. (They had help from Dynamic Strategies, a New Jersey-based VoIP services provider.) It took Chorus about three weeks to get all the IP Communicators on everyone’s computers, he says.
To ensure the quality of the phone connections, Boyd and his staff had to give some employees higher-end routers than typical home routers that dedicate a certain amount of bandwidth to employees’ Internet phones, says Boyd.
Most employees already had cell phones, but Chorus put together a policy and expense guidelines for all employees so that they could get BlackBerrys or Windows Mobile-compatible devices to use as a back up in the event their IP Communicator goes down. (Chorus also supports the new 3G iPhone.)
In addition, Boyd and team created “hunt” groups for each of the support groups: customer support, infrastructure support, application development and business analysts. So if customer support needs an infrastructure employee to help with a major client issue, the customer support employee dials the extension for the infrastructure team’s hunt group and that number rings out to the entire group and whoever is available can answer the call.
Testing the Work at Home Arrangement and Technology
Before employees began working from home, Chorus tested the telecommuting set-up with Customer Support Account Manager Jairis Galvez. She worked at home two Fridays in a row, and all of the vice presidents called into her queue to make sure they could hear her, that she could hear them and that there wasn’t static on the line.
Another technical issue Chorus’s IT department had to address was how far-flung employees would make internal phone calls now that they’re distributed. When Chorus maintained two offices, employees in Texas and New Jersey could dial four-digit phone numbers to reach each other across the country. The company found that the four-digit dialing didn’t work when each party was logged into the VPN from their home offices. The firewall (PIX 506) was not capable of allowing a VPN to VPN data transfer so the call would connect but neither party could hear the other. They had to dial 10-digit numbers to reach each other. Boyd discovered that the company’s firewall needed to be upgraded to enable the four-digit dialing so he installed a new Cisco 515 firewall in late June. Now every employee is just a four-digit dial away.
End of Part One
Other Parts in this Series
Read other stories in this series:
Part 2: Chorus establishes work-at-home policies and figures out how to provide remote tech support.
Part 3: Managers and staff adjust to telecommuting.