Earlier this year a leaked memo broke the news  that Yahoo was to end its work-from-home program.  The company’s CEO, Marissa Mayer, was both lauded and lambasted for the decision.  However, companies like Best Buy followed by announcing that they too would end their flexible work options, while some analysts in the industry called the move an “epic fail.

Telecommuting For Apple: Hard Work Tastes Sweet

The fact is, while not every remote worker is happier, more productive and produces better quality work, as some have purported, telecommuting offers indisputable benefits for certain types of businesses.

Technology behemoth Apple, for example, permanently employs a massive network of remote customer support agents, called At-Home Apple Advisors.  this saves them the huge real estate expense of call centers. At the same time, their recruiters can draw from an enormous talent pool since a location is not factored into the equation and inclement weather never prevents staff from coming to work.

However, running a team this way does not come without it’s challenges, chief among them being effectively training people in different locations. But Apple does make it work, however they are a bit sneaky with some of their practices.  For instance Apple does not inform trainees until after they are “hired” that the 8 a.m.-5 p.m. four-week training program is actually a test period.  The curriculum  for this period is broken into four, one-week sections that are a mix of live instruction and self-paced modules in iDesk.  Subsequently at the end of each week, everyone then takes an exam. They have two chances to hit the benchmark before they are kicked out of the program. So immediately, workers have an impetus not only to pay attention, but to keep the job once it’s final because they worked so hard to get there.

Next, the company uses a range of tactics to ensure that budding advisors are actually at their computers while training is going on. For example, trainers deliver regular prompts to each person throughout live instruction. These can be questions, requests for input, or just a cue for the trainee to click on. One former advisor said Apple monitors mouse movements. If your mouse does not move in a certain amount of time, then you’re sent a prompt. If you still don’t respond within 30 seconds, the trainer might actually call your cell phone.  In addition to these prompts, trainers can ask the class to turn on their cameras for group discussion at any moment, making it immediately clear if someone is not at their desk. Also, many of the test questions are worded in such a way that the trainee would only know the answer if they participated in all the past week’s activities.

All of these tactics are extremely impactful, not only for ensuring attendance, but fostering competition. This was in part because the entire class sees when someone does not respond to a prompt and when they fail a test.  In addition to ensuring attendance, Apple uses team psychology to keep workers engaged during and after the training period. Programs are taught to groups of 20-100 people who all live within 100 miles of its many “hub cities.”  Sometimes between instruction, the trainer asks the group to talk about themselves; this teamwork is also enforced by breaking the class into smaller groups for mock calls towards the end of the program.  One person in the sub-group fields a hypothetical customer call, while the entire team is asked to give feedback after the exercise is over. Many of the advisors reported regularly chatting on the computer, or even over the phone with classmates during and after instruction was over.

Finally, Apple creates buy-in from the team by enforcing company culture. The first few days of training are dedicated to describing the company’s history, what it was like working with Steve Jobs and the Cupertino campus culture. Before training starts, each advisor is sent a care package, if you will,  that may enclose a T-shirt, plaque, mug, gift cards and other keepsakes demonstrating that they are “part of the Apple family”.  After training, workers begin a job that is extremely intense. as  apparently managers closely scrutinize every call, and advisors are required to maintain a nearly perfect customer satisfaction score.

All of this, and the advisors make between $9-$12 per hour.  Outsiders would probably argue that Apple’s training program and high work expectations are not really feasible for other support organizations people would quit after the first day.  In the same way that customers will pay three times as much for their technology, workers will endure much more to get Apple on their resume.  So, while companies who manage teams permanently off-site can still realize the same savings on real estate and a broader reach for recruiting, they may not be able to establish a remote team that is as effective as Apple’s. Only Apple can demand this level of intensity, because as one advisor put it, “Apple has no qualms with saying if you are not the best, you can always work somewhere else. They make that abundantly clear.”

[Image via firstreference]

SOURCE: Ashley Verrill Analyst for SoftwareAdvice via http://techcrunch.com/2013/07/28/how-apple-gets-at-home-workers-to-work/