Everyone works from home at software firm

Taking a company virtual is possible if planned properly

Rick Boyd used to spend US$500 (NZ$648) a month on petrol and road tolls commuting between his home and office in New York state. Now Boyd doesn't commute any more because his company, Chorus, which provides clinical and management software for community health centres, has gone virtual.

Chorus closed its headquarters in Hasbrouck Heights, New York in early June and its other office, in Texas, a month later. Now all of the company's 35 employees and full-time consultants work at home. For the most part, they love it.

Chorus CIO Rick Boyd says existing technology made it easy for his company to go virtual.

Boyd 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 AJ Schreiber says Chorus can continue to serve customers while simultaneously saving US$400,000 a year simply by closing its 15,000 square feet of office space.

Chorus's transformation into a virtual company staffed with telecommuters hasn't been flawless, but none of the hurdles the company has encountered 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.

So what can others learn from Chorus' experience? The first lesson is that you need the right infrastructure to support a virtual, telecommuting set of employees.

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.

Foremost on his 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. This was done by enhancing the company's existing telecommunicatiosn infastructure.

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.

Most employees already had cellphones, but Chorus put together a policy and expense guidelines for all employees so that they could get BlackBerrys or Windows CE-compatible devices to use as a back up in the event their IP Communicator goes down.

Chorus developed work-at-home policies for telecommuters designed to maintain their productivity and the quality of service they provide to internal and external customers.

One aspect of the policy pertains to employees' work at home environment. Every employee needs to have a separate space in their home that they can use for work. Ideally, this is a separate room in their house or apartment with a door that they can close to separate themselves from their kids, pets, spouses or roommates. Employees also need to have a desk where they can work, even if it's just a folding table. The company doesn't want people working in front of the TV in their living rooms with their notebook computers on their laps or coffee tables.

Another aspect of the policy outlines the work equipment Chorus will provide to employees. In short, the company provides employees with all the computing and telecommunications equipment they need to do their jobs, such as laptops, monitors, keyboards, headsets and internet service. Employees pay for basic office supplies like paper, ink and toner cartridges, pens and Post-It notes out-of-pocket and submit expense reports for those items for reimbursement.

Chorus also set up a policy on work hours. Employees have to be at their desks in their home offices during normal business hours. They can't opt to work odd hours. All employees have to use instant messaging applications, and they have to put their phone numbers and their IM handle in the global address list on company's Microsoft Exchange Server.

In addition to the general work policies at Chorus, Luz says his group had specific, common-sense rules it had to follow. For example, they can't have TVs or stereos on in the background, or eat while on the phone with customers.

One question that lingered in Chorus employees' minds through this transition was how the company was going to provide tech support. What if a virus infected someone's computer or an application crashed? After all, even though the company maintains a datacentre in New Jersey, its IT staff also works from home and visits it on an as-needed basis. It's not like a helpdesk staffer can walk over to someone's desk to troubleshoot and fix problems.

The processes the IT group put in place to resolve technical support issues remotely aren't much different from the measures they took when an employee was working at a client's office and needed help from an IT staffer.

For example, if an employee is having a software problem, Aron Schneider, who works in Boyd's IT department, says IT simply takes control of their computer using remote desktop software like iTivity or by setting up a WebEx meeting.

If an employee's hard drive crashes, the IT staff replaces it with a temporary laptop it has preconfigured with all the basic software apps the employee needs to function. "If they're close enough where I can drive it out to them, I can make a swap," says Schneider. Otherwise, it's couriered.

To speed software downloads in the event IT needs to get a fully configured replacement computer to an employee, Boyd is looking for a software-based WAN accelerator.

Boyd says that he hasn't received any complaints from managers about poor tech support now that everyone in IT is working from home.

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Tags careersvirtualtelecommutingChorus

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