Andrew Bibby is a professional writer and journalist, working as an independent consultant for a number of international and national organisations, and as a regular contributor to British national newspapers and magazines. He is also the author of a number of books.
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Breakdown calls handled at home: how the AA is using teleworking
This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in Teleworker magazine (UK), Feb/March 1998
The motorist has broken down, and he wants the AA to get him home. His call, on a mobile phone from somewhere in south Wales, is taken by Carol Stokes, one of the AA's emergency call handling staff. Following the standard procedure, she fills out the details on the screen in front of her: the motorist's name and membership number, the sort of car he is driving, what seems to be wrong and - prompted here by the built-in location finder in the AA's software - exactly where the car currently is. Once the details are input, Carol reassures the driver: the patrol will be there in due course.
This sort of exchange happens thousands of times a day in the AA's four call centres (in Leeds, Newcastle, Halesowen and Cheadle) which are dedicated to taking breakdown calls. Since December 1997, however, the calls which Carol Stokes processes from motorists in difficulties are routed direct to her home on the outskirts of Wakefield.
Carol is one of ten AA employees who are taking part in the organisation's telework pilot. Work now happens from an upstairs spare bedroom equipped with a special teleworker's desk designed for the AA. Cups of tea come up whenever possible from her husband downstairs.
Carol Stokes says she is delighted with the arrangement. The AA seems satisfied, too, with the way its pilot is progressing, though full evaluation will not take place until the summer of 1998 when the initial six-month period is over. Ultimately, however, the AA talks of extending telework not only to staff currently working at the other call centres but also to take on new employees in other parts of the country.
Like other companies, the AA has a mixture of motives. Sue Moulson, manager of the Leeds call centre and one of telework project co-ordinators, talks of the problems which all Leeds call centres are now finding in recruiting and retaining staff. Leeds, at one time given the sobriquet ofï 'call centre city', is home to several major call centres.
The AA also sees home-working as increasing the flexibility of its employment arrangements. Unlike their call centre colleagues, the teleworkers are working split shifts, typically from 7.30am-11am and 4.30pm»8.30pm. These correspond to the morning and evening rush hour periods, the AA's busiest times for breakdowns. Home-based staff are also more easily called up to cope with short-term unexpected surges in incoming calls.
Technically speaking, the AA has adopted the sort of procedure followed by BT in its small-scale telework pilot in Southampton: ISDN2 lines are installed to each teleworker's home, carrying both voice and data traffic. Each AA teleworker is connected to the company's automated call distributed system, exactly replicating the situation in the call centre. "It's as if the teleworkers were sitting in a corner of the office, where the supervisor can't quite see them," Sue Moulson says. Calls can be listened to by supervisors, to check teleworkers' performance.
The AA is one of only a small number of British companies to have explored the possibility for teleworking in the call centre environment - or what is sometimes called the 'dispersed call centre'. The AA has also gone a stage further than most telework pilots, in recruiting new staff directly into homeworking. Four of its ten current teleworkers are new to the company. In addition, each is registered disabled (one is a wheelchair user). Sue Moulson says that the AA engaged the services of a disability consultant during the project planning process and recruited partly through the government's employment advisory service for the disabled: "hopefully teleworking can open a few more doors," she says.
Taking on new employees to be teleworkers can raise challenging managerial questions: how do you train your staff and ensure that they are imbued with the company culture, for example? Not surprisingly, many companies considering telework prefer to begin with existing employees.
The AA asked its four new staff to travel in to the Leeds call centre for the standard four week training course, followed by two weeks' supervised training in actually handling calls. Thereafter, however, the AA has devised an interesting innovation: each new teleworker is allocated another call handler as a 'buddy', who spends up to two weeks in the teleworker's own home helping them through this initial period. The idea is an attempt to recreate some of the conditions for informal support which exist in the call centre, and to give the teleworker a friend in the centre who they can ring up later for news.
The AA says that it hopes also in future to develop procedures for training new teleworkers entirely in their own homes - something which would be a necessity, if staff were to be taken on in geographically remote areas. The organisation is upbeat about the possibilities: as it points out, it has long experience in the training and supervision of its team of several thousand patrol staff, who also work alone.
For the present, the AA is seeing how the Leeds pilot goes. Come the summer of 1998, the company will evaluate the experience, undertake a cost/benefit analysis - and then consider expanding to become a much more serious employer of teleworkers.
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