There's no work force like home

/ Source: Business Week

There is a phenomenal untapped labor pool in this country, a multitude of highly skilled, well-educated women based in their homes and eager to rejoin the workforce. Telework presents an opportunity for business leaders to harness this unique workforce and realize the benefits of establishing a "virtual" infrastructure to support valued customers.

In recent years, I have observed a silent explosion in the home-based workforce. The transformation has been most notable in call center operations. Traditional call center jobs are being transferred from bricks-and-mortar operations to virtual centers in home offices across the country, enabling many talented women to opt back in to a more flexible workforce.

Working women who today feel compelled to make the hard choice between children and careers will not have to choose if they opt to work at home. Teleworking, especially in the call center industry, provides a way for working women to capitalize on years of specialized industry experience and career building while meeting the demands of child rearing.

With flexible schedules, part-time hours, and fully wired home offices, women can remain engaged in the workforce while still managing family responsibilities. The part-time, educated, home-based workforce represents a powerful shift in the U.S. economy.

Several factors have converged to make home-based work the emerging model for specialized customer care: Advanced technology, streamlined business processes, and a new generation of corporate managers who embrace "virtual servicing" as a results-oriented and efficient strategy. Today, more than 100,000 customer-service representatives work from home, and IDC predicts that by 2010 the number will exceed 300,000.

Seasoning matters
In particular, more companies are opting to outsource specialized customer service to virtual contact centers. These centers are a network of home-based skilled agents connected by technology that lets them deliver premium customer care more efficiently and productively than counterparts in traditional call centers.

Telework expands the national labor pool, allowing hiring managers to be more selective in building a team of niche market experts from all over the country. In the face of political pressures and customer backlash, many companies are bringing call center operations back from overseas. While some tasks remain well-suited for offshoring, specialized customer care is ideal for "homeshoring." Outbound customer care, customer surveys, new customer welcomes, and seasonal spikes are all suited for skilled, home-based agents.

Research has shown that home-based customer service reps are older, more experienced, and better educated than their counterparts in traditional call centers. What does this mean for employers? It means reduced turnover among a pool of seasoned professionals providing specialized customer care.

Lower overhead
Specialized customer-service representatives with expertise in their fields deliver premium results. For example, a gourmet food company or kitchen appliance manufacturer can staff its customer-service line with former chefs, foodies, or gourmet market employees, while a travel-services company can enlist former travel agents or travel journalists. These industry experts can go beyond scripted answers to provide customers with insider knowledge about a particular hotel or airport and offer valuable insight into travelers' destinations.

Reduced facilities expenses are another benefit. Once the technological infrastructure is in place, companies incur little or no facilities costs in hiring new agents. For employees, the appeal of home-based work is clear. For women raising children, it provides flexibility and convenience while maximizing brainpower and keeping skills sharp. Schedules can easily be tailored to accommodate early morning or late evening shifts, allowing employees to meet the school bus or attend Little League games.

Telework also saves on commuting and dry cleaning expenses, and eliminates the need to live near costly urban centers. In exchange for these perks comes tremendous loyalty. A corps of high-caliber, home-based employees appreciate the flexibility their positions afford, and often respond with increased productivity and dedication.

Sense of community
Improvements in technology have allowed home offices to be fully equipped with broadband access and soft switch technology for instant routing of calls and e-mail. For managers in my company, VIPdesk, Web-based tools provide virtual call centers with the same level of performance monitoring available to traditional call centers: Audio and video monitoring, both real-time and recorded.

Technology also allows us to overcome one real hurdle often encountered with a widely dispersed workforce: Maintaining a sense of cohesion and community in the work place. Lots of communication solves this problem. Secure instant messaging and employee chat forums, combined with regional meetings and executive visits, go a long way to foster a sense of belonging.

The current trend of specialized customer care is a far cry from "get rich quick" schemes, with empty promises of "Work at Home/Earn $$$," advertised by flyers stapled to utility poles at busy intersections. Such endeavors have until recently given home-based work a bad rap.

Win-win situation
The truth is, major businesses stand to gain from utilizing home-based employees. In the next five years, there will be a dramatic shift due to this home-based workforce. I predict even more national, brand-conscious companies will take a step towards virtual servicing.

As I see it, it's a winning scenario all around: for the individual employees who are able to maintain a better work-life balance, for the companies that leverage the benefits of a virtual workforce, and finally for the U.S. economy as a whole, because it allows more jobs to remain here in the U.S.