How I improve tech support by allowing staff to work from home

How-I-improve-tech-support-100Maryna Fewster is the chief customer officer for iiNet, in charge of the company’s tech support staff.

Fewster is responsible for introducing one of the company’s most dramatic staff changes – allowing tech support to work from home. They log in to the company’s system and then take calls from wherever they live.

By all accounts it’s working. Staff working from home stay with the company longer and the practice attracts candidates who desire that flexibility, such as younger mothers. As Fewster says, it’s a strategy the company is keen to continue pursuing.

How long have you been with iiNet?

I worked for a company in New Zealand which was acquired by iiNet in 2003. Then I moved to Perth in 2006, so I’ve been with the company overall since 2003.

And has your role here been the same that entire time?

Before this I was in charge of human resources to corporate services, including business improvement. I’ve now been placed in charge of all customer service, of IT and our developers. It’s a really great job.

I think we employ people that are really like-minded. As long as you’re happy to go with the changes, and implement the changes you put forward, it’s a great place to work.

What’s the office like at iiNet? How does it feel to work there?

There isn’t a lot of red tape. You get to push the boundaries a lot, and you’re employed for a lot more than the job you actually do. Other ideas you have are taken into account. So if you have a passion outside your normal area, you’re given the scope to go and do that.

Tell me about your staff that work from home. Where did this idea come from?

In 2007 we were faced with a couple of issues. One was that people didn’t want to work late shifts, because they could get jobs doing more reasonable hours, and we were also faced with the growing number of people that wanted flexibility in their work life.

We did a lot of focus groups with staff, looked at what other people were doing, and then we implemented a couple of big changes.

So what did you do?

The first was that we implemented a system of following the sun, so we run our tech support from Auckland to Capetown. Nobody worked later than 8PM local time. The other decision was to allow more people to work from home.

That sounds like a pretty big task – how did you accomplish it?

All you need to be able to do is have a good internet connection, have a computer, and a headset. And then you can service a customer wherever you are, even if you’re on holidays. We also had the issue of not having a lot of real estate space.

We were in-between buildings, so there were quite a few factors involved there. This was a fantastic solution to give people the flexibility they need and help us save on costs because we don’t need as big a space.

The attraction to that sort of work seems pretty obvious

People love the fact they can just ask to work from home for three months at a time, or for a week if their child is ill, or even permanently, if they are a young mother and need to be home.

How many of your staff currently work from home?

We have about 15-20% of our Australian staff working from home right now.

And can anybody just ask to work from home? How do you judge who does and who doesn’t?

Anybody can request it, on the provision that their performance is good. If someone has a performance issue that needs to be dealt with, then we do that and train them properly. But we’re not about to take someone who has a sick leave issue and then just allow them to work from home, for instance.

You’ve mentioned your working-from-home staff are slightly different from other staff members. How so?

The tenure is much longer, so they tend to stay with the company more. And the average age is a few years older as well.

One of the things we’ve seen in Sydney is a big uptake in the number of staff who work from home there. It’s such a long commute; they’re travelling for 50 minutes a day each way. Now, they don’t have to. They don’t have to dress up, or worry about that other stuff, they’re just logging on and providing the best service.

(Figures provided by iiNet show the average tenure of staff working from home is 3.5 years, compared to 1.7 years for office staff, while the total commute saved by all working-from-home staff per day is 5746km.)

Are there any worries about being away from the team?

It’s exactly the same system. They have the same team leader, they have a laptop with a webcam, so they can instantly communicate. They get exactly the same support.

What about connection issues? What happens if their internet cuts out?

We don’t have that often. As part of the benefits package, staff get an iiNet account, and we have had people drop a connection before. When that happens they call the customer straight back, or contact the team leader and the team leader calls that customer back. However, that’s happened very, very rarely.

Does anybody ever come back after working from home?

We do find that half the people will come into the office once a fortnight. The average age in our staff is about 27, so they like to come in and be sociable. We provide them with some great facilities to use during breaks – pool tables, game consoles and so on – so they like coming in, and also on Friday afternoons to have a few drinks with teammates.

But it just suits the lifestyle. They don’t want to travel, it cuts petrol costs, parking is expensive, and our young mothers really enjoy it because they can get the kids off to school in the morning. We’re flexible with times as well so they can log in, and log off if they need to.

It sounds like a successful system – where do you plan to take it?

I’m hoping to get 30% of the Australian workforce from home. The more we do it, the better we can recruit people who are possible candidates for the program. It really works well with what we’re trying to achieve with our staff, and it’s important for their work-life balance.

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