Remote Work At Answer Connect
* As of March 2016
Answer Connect Remote Company Q&A
Natalie Fung, CEO - Interview with Remote.co
What does your remote-friendly company do?
We help small and medium businesses thrive. We offer live (24/7/365) answering service, appointment scheduling, websites, web chat and a whole host of services that any small or medium sized business will need to ensure they do not miss business, free them up to focus on their top priorities and maximize every phone call and web visitor.
Did you switch to remote or start out that way?
We like to say we started in a garage and have now happily returned to one, thanks to remote working. Twenty years ago, our co-founders built a long distance telephone carrier up from scratch. As new technologies made long distance a thing of the past, we transitioned into a live answering service, still based in our CEO’s garage. We grew from there into a traditional call center, with hundreds of employees in one large building. This model limited us in terms of space, talent pool, and imagination.
As a company, we believe in small experiments. So our first foray into remote working didn’t take us far—just across the street to the vacant space above a dry cleaner. We set up some computers there and began testing to ensure we could deliver the same standard of service from a “remote” location. When we got it working, we sent our customer experience associates home to take our clients’ calls over the Internet, and we’ve never looked back. That change reduced our square footage radically, while keeping employment even.
Last year, we downsized our office space again, trading in a space we loved but that was really bigger than we needed from 7,527 to an office across the hall that is just 725 square feet. The roll-up door makes us feel right at home, and we have just enough space for some of our leadership and other local employees to work one day a week in the office—if they want to. The rest of our hundreds of employees work out of their homes in five states, with a sixth on the way.
How important is remote work to your business model?
Remote work is essential for us. We have employees in every time zone across the US, which helps us to staff 24/7/365 with people who are awake and ready to work! We’ve been able to recruit and keep employees who would not want to work in a traditional contact center environment, but love our company because of the freedom remote work allows. Remote also helps us maintain our excellent uptime by ensuring that natural disasters, ISP outages and other catastrophes do not impact our ability to get the job done. We have also seen the clear benefit of happier, more productive employees through this model, and from an environmental standpoint, remote is a no brainer. We’ve become evangelical about this model because it is the right answer for us and so many other businesses.
What do you consider the biggest benefits of a remote workforce?
The biggest benefit is one that’s bigger than a few individuals or an entire company: reduced carbon emissions. Though not all jobs can be done remotely, if everyone who could cut their commute did so, the climate change conversation would be much different. That said, we have seen better employee retention, higher reports of job satisfaction, savings on infrastructure costs that are no longer needed with this model and the ability to encourage other companies and individuals to try this themselves.
What were the main reasons to integrate remote work into your workforce?
For us, one motivation looms above all the great advantages of remote work: climate change. The magnitude of this global challenge dwarfs even the significant benefits of saving time and money. As a data-driven company, we simply can’t ignore the numbers on the dangers of continuing the status quo when it comes to carbon emissions. For us, the model of “bathtub cities” (filling up in the morning, emptying out at night, spewing exhaust all the way) simply doesn’t work anymore. Luckily, we believe remote working offers a partial solution that also brings with it the additional benefits, like saving employees an average of 51 minutes per day in commute time and thus allowing for more time with families or pursuing interests outside of work. Remote working truly is a boon to the Triple Bottom Line: people, planet, and profit.
What traits do you look for in candidates for a remote job?
Not specifically for the remote aspect. We look for the same traits that we would be looking at for an in office position, which, in summary, are great customer service skills, computer skills, and culture fit.
How do you conduct interviews for remote jobs?
The interview process has certainly evolved since we started hiring for remote work. Today, we conduct telephone and webcam interviews with potential candidates.
How do you convey your remote culture in the recruiting process?
We openly discuss our remote culture at our initial interview with all candidates. We talk about the company, the history of the company, the culture of the company and we talk about why we are passionate about providing remote opportunities to employees. We also have a lot of information on our website and Facebook page as well, which is incorporated in our hiring process. We share these links with candidates prior to meeting with them so they have ample opportunities to learn more about the company and the position that they are applying for.
What is your hiring process for remote workers?
We hire remote workers in much the same way as we would an on-site employee. The only additional steps that we take for remote employees is verifying that their software capabilities are at the level required to be able to perform the work from home.
Do you use third party testing or evaluation services when hiring remote workers?
Yes, we do a background check as well as testing software to do a computer literacy test, listening skills tests, spelling, and typing tests.
How do you conduct onboarding for remote workers?
We have a paperless system. When a candidate is hired and has passed the testing, we invite them to a training class and once accepted we send them the necessary paperwork via email. The candidate completes the paperwork and it is submitted electronically using Docusign. We install the necessary software, by appointment, using remote set up.
Do you have remote communication protocols for your remote workers?
There is a constant communication buzz around AnswerConnect. With all of the platforms for chat, video call, email, etc, we are always able to connect with one another. We don’t have hard and fast rules around response time, and our applications allow us to see what our teammates are working on, so this helps shape a general expectation around quick responses. A team member may chat another team member and see that they have not replied in a few minutes. Instead of wondering, they can easily look to see if that person is in a meeting, taking a break or entrenched in a major project. There is a lot of accountability, and in general, responses are very fast.
Do your remote team members meet in person?
Yes. We hold regular day-long events, called MeetUps, to give our employees in different areas a chance to gather, learn about our mission, get to know each other better, and have fun. Various company leaders join these events in person and by video call.
How do you measure the productivity of remote workers?
Our front-line live answering employees (Customer Experience Associates) work within a carefully constructed framework. Regular QA evaluations, including listening back to recorded calls, help us keep our standards high. Our software for distributing the calls, emails, and chats we handle for our clients includes precise measurements, so we know how much downtime associates have between calls, for example. Our employees are incentivized through a transparent system that includes giving our top performers first pick of the shifts they want to work. The most productive and effective team members have the most flexibility in when they work, in addition to being able to work from home or any suitable remote environment. For employees who work in other departments, sharing updates on their work and knowing the results we are looking for is essential, and we do that through software we have developed in-house.
What elements are key to successful working relationships with remote teams?
Outlook, process, and tools. Outlook means focusing on output rather than input and operating with trust and transparency. When people can’t physically see each other much of the time, trust becomes all the more important. Process involves codifying how your remote teams will maintain communication, how they will collaborate, and what the expectations are. Having the right tools and technology is necessary (but not sufficient) to having an effective distributed organization.
What is the hardest part about managing a remote workforce?
When you cease seeing a person all day, every day, you have to develop new ways to determine if they are present and working hard. You also need to learn how to connect, engage and build rapport when there isn’t a real water cooler to create chance encounters. These things are tough.
How do you keep remote employees engaged and feeling part of the bigger picture?
A remote workforce may need even more communication than a co-located one. We run daily challenges and promote lifelong learning through AdaptiveU, an online learning platform we developed in-house. We send internal emails to share our team members’ stories (of work, family, and play). And most importantly, we share our mission to change how the world works from the first day of training and try to infuse everything we do with that sense of “why.” On a day to day basis, we use software we developed to chat, share updates on what we are working on and meet over video calls. This really helps close the distance between employees.
What is your BYOD policy for remote workers?
We are predominantly a BYOD company. For our customer experience associates, we provide technical specifications for their equipment. Employees must meet these requirements to ensure their computers and internet connectivity will be top-notch to meet our needs. Employees clock in to our systems to begin work, so there is a definite start and stop to work time.
What is your time off policy for remote workers?
We are pretty flexible. We allow the majority of our employees to self-schedule, so this helps team members to schedule around things they might otherwise have to request time off for. Of course, employees can request time off, and that is done pretty easily as well.
How did you implement a remote work policy?
For our core business, live answering, the implementation had to be formal. We needed our customer experience associates to be able to take our clients’ calls with the same reliability they had in the call center. In addition, in order to realize the cost savings of a smaller office, we needed many employees to make the switch at the same time. So, we tested a remote location before making the change, and then moved iteratively.
Can a remote-friendly company have a healthy culture?
Absolutely. Maintaining a healthy culture is an important challenge for any organization, and probably less dependent on being in one place than one might think. Today, people are well accustomed to communicating through technology. So it’s more a matter of creating the platform for people to do at work what many of them already do in their personal lives—interact with all kinds of people, all over the world, whether they know them well personally or not. A remote model may even help organizations develop their culture in a more considered way than they otherwise would. A remote company can’t set up a ping pong table, stock the fridge, and call it a day. Building a remote culture takes proactive effort to facilitate and encourage communication and build trust. Internally, we have run many initiatives around fitness, health, sustainability and lifelong learning. These initiatives are fun, engaging and help rally our teammates around our mission.
How do you nurture your company’s culture in a remote work environment?
We have regular in-person meetups in the different areas where we operate, to give our employees the opportunity to learn and connect with each other. We use chat groups for each team as a virtual “water cooler”—both for important messages and casual exchanges. Our internally developed video training platform, AdaptiveU, allows us to instill our company values in our trainees from their first day, and to continue to communicate our mission and culture to our employees after that. We promote our mission regularly in internal communications, primarily emails.
What advice would you give to a team considering to go remote?
If you’re not sure how you’ll maintain accountability for your remote teams, consider this: How do you keep your teams accountable now? If you think it’s by seeing the tops of their heads sticking up out of their cubicles, you may need to reconsider more than your policy on remote work. In the end, you have to be able to measure the results—the output—of what you and your employees do, and not just the input in the form of hours spent in a certain chair.
What challenges have you encountered building a remote team?
Thinking anywhere is a constant challenge. It seems natural to think of the person in physical proximity first. We have identified this as a challenge and work to expand where we look for talent and how we organize projects to better facilitate working anywhere.
What are the most effective tools for remote team communication?
We use a chat and video client we developed ourselves, called Anywhere Works. Because Anywhere Works is still in development, we back it up with Skype, Google Hangouts, and of course, good old-fashioned email. As much as we can, we hold physical meetups in the cities where our employees live. We find that a small dose of in-person connection can have benefits that last long after everyone has returned to their home offices.
How do you personally manage work-life balance?
Fred Kofman’s book “Conscious Business” talks about the idea of a work / life balance, and how if you believe in this, you’re essentially saying that while you’re working, you aren’t living. Personally, I want to live every minute of every day, and work is a big part of what enriches my life. Working remotely has given me more time and freedom in my day, and I am thrilled to see more companies testing the remote model.
What is your favorite business book?
‘What Got You Here Won’t Get You There” Mark Reiter, “The Design of Everyday Things” Donald A Norman, “Lean In” Sheryl Sandberg, “Spark” John J Ratey.