This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in People Management, 2002
Break down beside the M1 and, if youre an AA member, the person taking your anxious call for help may very well be talking to you from their spare bedroom. The AA currently has 140 home-based call handlers, who between them sort out around two and a million breakdown calls from stricken motorists each year.
Having started with a small pilot group of nine home-based workers in late 1997, the AA rapidly expanded its teleworking programme, in the process closing its Leeds call centre and the breakdown side of its Newcastle call centre. As a consequence, the teleworkers are clustered in the Newcastle and Leeds areas, and also around Cheadle near Stockport where the AA continues to operate a conventional call centre.
The AA, now part of Centrica, argues that using home-workers allows for much greater flexibility in work rostering (home workers typically work the early morning and late afternoon and evening drivetime shifts, with time off in between), helps retain staff, and also improves productivity. Though its has admitted to early problems with the technology, the firm has in public painted an upbeat picture of its experience as one of the largest UK exponents of so-called virtual call centre working.
In reality, however, the AAs bold experiment nearly came to an abrupt end early last year , not as a consequence of dodgy technology but rather because of HR and management difficulties. Teleworkers productivity, measured in terms of calls taken per hour (CPH) was significantly better than their centre-based colleagues but unfortunately not good enough to justify the extra costs of equipping their homes with the necessary kilostream connections and kit. "Our people have to be at least 1.5 times more productive than site staff," explains Ian Hunter, the AAs telework manager. "A few months ago they werent".
Ian Hunter, a straight-talking Geordie with little time for lax staffing practices, was brought in last summer to sort things out. He told the teleworkers that they faced two possible scenarios a Coronation Street-style success story, or extinction, as befell the BBCs embarrassing soap flop Eldorado. Though he didnt go on to make the connection, any dodgy Spanish practices by teleworkers were about to be scrutinised very carefully.
As is usual in call centres, staff performance is strongly focused on quantitative targets and the AAs teleworkers are well aware that the magic figure for them is that of 12.6 calls per hour. This statistic, together with other measures such as the clear-up time for calls and the time taken for breaks, is recorded by the AAs automated call distribution (ACD) system.
The AAs teleworkers are split into seven teams, each with their own team manager. Ian Hunters principal innovation on taking up his post was to use the statistical data from the ACD system to produce staff league tables, and to give these print-outs to all members of each teleworking team. This means that individual performance is now very much public knowledge, in relation to team colleagues. At each bi-monthly team briefing, there is a moment of silence as the sheets of paper are passed around and the teleworkers absorb the information: (yes, C---- is at the top once again, with a CPH rate of 19 . and J---- is at the bottom once again, taking only 9 calls per hour ) Just to make it abundantly clear, workers who underperform see their efforts highlighted on the handouts in red.
League tables were not initially well received, but now seem to have become accepted. Certainly, Ian Hunter can point to an impressive increase in telework productivity in the last six months or so. His focus now is on absenteeism among teleworkers, which somewhat unexpectedly is worse than among site-based staff (most telework studies suggest that the opposite should hold true).
The role of Ian Hunters seven team managers is clearly an important one if teleworking is to operate successfully, and this was perhaps one area which did not initially receive adequate attention, To be fair, there was little for the AA to go on: the substantial body of telework literature and research has tended to concentrate on the issues associated with the teleworkers themselves and to ignore the needs of those who are directly supervising teleworkers.
In addition to individual one-to-ones with Ian Hunter, the team managers meet together with him every month. They each have relatively large teams, typically about 20-strong, and even though the teams are arranged on a geographical basis this inevitably means a lot of unproductive time spent travelling in their cars one of the less pleasant consequences of the move to teleworking, according to one team manager. The policy aim is to visit each employee twice a month in their own homes for one-to-ones which typically last from 30 minutes to one and a half hours. Each team meets up once every two months for a team briefing, and there are also regular social events which teleworkers are invited to come to, in their own time.
In between these meetings, team managers can communicate with their team members by sending messages via the AAs electronic Information Services system (accessible through terminals). Each teleworker has also been equipped with a fax machine. There are no email or videoconferencing facilities, and team managers do not require teleworkers to check in by phone before starting work.
Stuart McNall, one of the team managers based in Newcastle, says that the techniques and etiquette of supervising teleworking staff are different from those for conventional call handlers. "In the office, I might get straight into the performance statistics. The one-to-ones held at home tend to be longer: Im conscious Im in their own houses, and we usually start with a few minutes chat first," he says. He has also had to devise stratagems where partners are at home to dissuade them from participating as well particularly if his message is not going to be a very pleasant one. Although the situation has yet to arise in his own team, any meetings which involve formal disciplinary situations are held away from the home, in AA or third party premises.
McNall says that his role has stretched to include what he calls an agony aunt element to the job, particularly where teleworkers are living alone or having problems in their personal life. The usual distance between home and worklife no longer holds for teleworkers, and team managers know much more about their staffs circumstances than is usually the case. This can present extra challenges. A particularly difficult moment for one of the AAs team managers, for example, occurred recently when one of their teleworkers suffered a tragic family bereavement. As Stuart McNall says, he and his colleagues almost need to have basic counselling skills to be able to deal with situations such as this.
Ian Hunter says that recent staff performance suggests that teleworking will continue to have a place in the AA. Indeed, he is currently recruiting 14 new teleworkers to take the total team up to about 150, and discussing the possibility of extending the work undertaken by teleworkers to include membership sales work. However his experience at the AA has given him one clear message for others contemplating telework: "The technical infrastructure is of secondary importance. The most important thing is to make sure you have the right people," he says.