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Staffing Management: Hiring At-Home Workers

Elizabeth Agnvall    10/1/2008
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Vol. 4, No. 4

Bringing remote employees onboard may benefit your company—if the hiring process is carefully devised and thoughtfully conducted.

KPOnCall, a nurse triage call center owned by Kaiser Permanente, didn’t decide to hire remote workers and allow employees to work from home based on the attraction of slashing real estate costs. The driver, says Dan Wallis, director of technology and one of the main architects of the program, was to differentiate the company in the competitive market for hiring qualified nurses.

San Diego-based KPOnCall began a small pilot program in 2002 to allow 10 nurses to work from home. Nurses on call provide 24/7 remote care management to nearly 4.5 million members.

“The goal was to see if we could technologically have nurses work from home and how it fit culturally,” says Wallis. The pilot was such a success that the company worked with its union to integrate the work-at-home option into their agreement. At first, nurses could work from home after one year of employment; now they can do so after three to six months.

“It was not cheap. It was not easy. The driver for us was recruiting and retention,” Wallis says. The company was growing fast—500 percent to 600 percent in five years. “We were chronically short-staffed and had fairly high attrition. We determined that it could become a hiring differentiator if we gave [employees] the opportunity to work from home within a certain time frame.”

In 2005, the company began using the work-at-home option as part of its recruiting message, and the number of applicants skyrocketed. KPOnCall now has a waiting list of 70 nurses to fill available spots, and attrition at the company has plummeted from around 23 percent in 2003 to 3 percent.

As KPOnCall’s experience demonstrates, there can be benefits to incorporating work-at-home arrangements into a company’s hiring strategy. But to reap those rewards, companies must first understand the complexities of hiring remote workers.

Cultural Fit

Human resource consultant Roberta Chinsky Matuson, CEO of Human Resources Solutions in Northampton, Mass., says before deciding to allow employees to telework, a company must determine whether such an arrangement fits with its culture.

After determining that remote work arrangements worked for them, a number of call centers became early adopters of employing home-based workers. JetBlue Airways, Alpine Access and LiveOps have all adapted to a largely at-home workforce. According to technology research and consulting firm The Yankee Group, an August 2007 survey found that 24 percent of domestic call center workers are based at home.

In addition, some large companies, such as IBM, Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard and Cisco, have found that a “distributed workforce” fits well with their company culture. At Sun Microsystems, 56 percent of employees don’t have assigned offices, and 40 percent of the IBM workforce has no office at the company. Hewlett-Packard Company has 14,700 U.S. employees on “formal telework status.”

Jeanie Mabie, global recruitment leader at IBM, says the company recruits as a “globally integrated enterprise” and, as a result, is well-suited for work-at-home arrangements. Although the company is organized geographically and has recruitment leaders in each geographic area, it reaches across borders. “It doesn’t matter if someone is in the next town, the next city or across the ocean,” says Mabie, who can’t remember the last time she worked in the same city as her manager. “We want the best people, regardless of where they live.”

She adds that the company’s global recruitment system allows people to apply for IBM positions from many different countries and that IBM provides employees with technological tools that allow them to work seamlessly from anywhere.

It’s important for company leaders to embrace the concept of working from home as part of the company culture, Mabie notes. “We are focused on results as opposed to where someone sits,” she says. “You want to find the people who can deliver those best results.”

And, in fact, many experts say companies that already hire a results-oriented workforce can sometimes make easy transitions to hiring remote workers.

It’s one thing to allow existing employees to telecommute but another thing to hire employees specifically for work-at-home arrangements. Experts agree that managers and recruiters alike should understand that successful remote workers need to have a different set of qualifications than employees hired to work in a traditional office.

Amy Padron, PHR, human resource manager with Seattle-based MedData Inc., a medical billing and coding company that hires employees to work from home, says good remote workers are production-based and don’t like to be distracted.

Matuson adds two more characteristics: independent and self-motivated. “You need to make sure that these people have a sense of urgency,” she says.
Mabie often recruits new graduates from universities, both in the United States and globally. She says today’s college students are used to communicating via instant messaging (IM), conference calls, e-mail and social networking sites such as Facebook.

But “Not everybody is made to work from home,” Padron notes. Some people miss the camaraderie and rapport of a traditional workplace.

Matuson agrees that a surprising number of people find that they feel isolated or lonely working from home, so it may not be a good fit for an extrovert who needs social interactions.
If a manager isn’t sure a candidate will be a good fit for telework, Matuson recommends a trial basis.

Establish a Process

Jack Heacock, senior vice president and co-founder of the Washington-based Telework Coalition, says companies interested in hiring remote workers shouldn’t simply inform candidates that they have the option of working from home. Instead, a team including representatives from IT and human resources, together with the chief financial officer, should create an integrated approach to remote hiring.

“The hiring processes and procedures are totally different” for remote workers, Heacock says. “The technology only represents one-fourth of the big picture. Policy, processes and procedures—that’s … how you make this work.”

Denver-based TeleTech, a global outsourcing company with 50,000 employees, has developed a hiring process specifically for its 1,000 to 2,000 remote customer care employees. Potential work-at-home candidates are directed to the company’s TeleTech@Home career web site, which details the company’s eight-step hiring process.

After a candidate submits an application and answers pre-screening questions, the company tests the candidate’s technical setup (including computer speed, memory and Internet connection), grammar, service skills and computer knowledge. Another assessment tool determines whether the candidate is likely to be successful working from home. If the candidate passes all of the assessments, he or she proceeds to a virtual group information session and a phone interview.

Jim Farnsworth, senior vice president and general manager of TeleTech’s home business unit, says the company strives to educate potential candidates about the job requirements and work-at-home culture.

Likewise, when candidates express concern about not being in touch with managers or colleagues, IBM’s Mabie tells them about a host of tools the company has to make sure they stay connected—mentoring, connection coaches, IM and an extensive intranet with Facebook-style pages that allow employees to get to know each other remotely.

Smooth Operations

HR professionals with years of experience in hiring remote workers agree that the smoothest operations have a clear set of telework policies and procedures so that recruiters don’t get bogged down negotiating who pays for Internet access and paperclips. Well-thought-out managerial strategies are also crucial.

MedData decided to allow employees to work from home just a year and a half ago, when it moved corporate office spaces from north to south Seattle. Now MedData hires medical coders specifically for work-at-home arrangements.

Padron says the company mainly conducts interviews over the phone but may do in-person interviews if a manager is traveling close to the candidate’s location or if the candidate lives near Seattle. Candidates take a coding test to show that they know the work.

Today, the company’s employees are spread across the country. The work-at-home arrangement has been successful in part because of the company’s detailed telecommuting policy and procedures, which set forth guidelines for eligibility, computer equipment and reimbursable expenses, and for setting up the work area and purchasing office supplies.

MedData provides remote workers with a laptop, a printer, a fax, a scanner and other equipment, including a $500 allowance for office furniture. The company pays for phone and high-speed Internet service but not heat or electricity. Office supplies are ordered through the main office.

‘A Wave of the Future’

KPOnCall’s Wallis says the concept of hiring remote workers is gaining momentum: “As the cultural shift happens and more managers get used to the concept that you don’t have to see someone to manage them, the idea will gain strength.”

TeleTech’s Farnsworth agrees that the number of remote workers will only increase. “I think it’s a wave of the future,” he says. “We do see many more of the mainstream corporations moving toward it. The environment is a thought-starter for them—they now have the ability to leverage a wide geography to attract a different level of flexibility, scalability and quality.”

Elizabeth Agnvall is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer.

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