In an effort to keep up with rapidly expanding demand for its new services, Cox Communications Inc.'s San Diego-based customer-care center initiated a pilot program earlier this year in which selected customer-service agents were allowed-even encouraged-to work from their homes.
During three years in operation, the call center's current location had already been expanded twice, building onto its existing structure with more bricks, mortar and cubicles. When the center first opened, it employed 200 people. That number has grown to about 1,000 today.
Cox vice president of customer care Deborah Lawrence and director of information technology for the customer-care center Joel McGinley said last week that they created the "CyberAgent" program because they wanted to prepare quickly for anticipated growth spurts.
Their goal was to set aside 20 percent of call-center seats to support whatever new services demanded attention this year, such as telephony and high-speed data.
The Cox customer-care center introduced the program to its employees in February. Two months later, it had 50 employees working from home at specially designed work stations that allow them to interact seamlessly with customers.
The number of employees working from home has doubled since April to 100, and it is expected to double again by the end of the year.
Each home worker, or CyberAgent, is outfitted with a dedicated phone line connected to the call center's virtual private network, with access to the same billing systems and subscriber records that a call-center employee can access.
ALL GEAR PROVIDED
Cox provides all of the equipment-from desks and PCs down to chairs, chair mats and wastebaskets-so that workers at home have the same tools available in the call center. The MSO also supplies digital cameras and audio speakers that allow team managers to review their home-based workers in cyberspace.
To ensure that the program had enough employee support from the start, McGinley donned a "CyberMan" superhero costume, complete with a splashy red cape, when he pitched the idea at an employee meeting in February.
There's also a CyberMan Web page to give employees additional information on the program and a chat room that allows CyberAgents to network and bond with each other.
"Our team went from the first meeting to full participation in 60 days," McGinley said.
To do so, Cox had to institute a screening process to qualify potential CyberAgents, as well as an installation system to get the home offices up and running.
The call center was also careful to make sure there was a mobile tech-support unit in place. Quick repairs were crucial for CyberAgents because they didn't have backup work stations in place the way call-center employees did.
Cox requires CyberAgents to have at least nine months of experience at the call center before working at home. To qualify, they must have a good attendance record and above-average sales performance, along with an ability to be self-directed and self-supporting.
Even when an employee qualifies for the CyberAgent program, there's a chance that the employee's home won't meet the requirements. According to McGinley, that's only happened in a few cases, including one home that also served as a day-care center, which, Cox decided, would not be conducive to good customer service.
Cox sends out field personnel to take digital photos of prospective homes. The call center wants to determine whether the site would be too noisy to provide good customer care, for example. "The last thing we want to do is to set people up for failure," McGinley added.
GIVING UP PERKS
Although there's a waiting list for prospective Cyber-Agents, not all call-center employees want to work from home.
"There is a rich culture here, and people enjoy working at the call center," Lawrence said. "There are employees who need to interact with people to feel satisfied in their work."
Beyond the social aspects, there are perks at the call center that many workers don't have at home: on-site child care, workout facilities, a cafeteria, a Zen garden, a coffee bar and a recreation room complete with pool table and big-screen TV. An on-site study area offers high-speed Internet access to college students who work at the call center.
"It's very employee-friendly," Lawrence said. "It was built with feedback from current Cox employees" on what they considered an ideal work environment.
Lawrence said she would recommend the CyberAgent program to other call centers experiencing the same kind of rapid growth, especially when they're faced with recruiting and retaining employees in a tight job market.
"There is nothing our employees have been more appreciative of from a work/life benefit," she added.
While McGinley declined to specify how costly the Cyber-Agent program was to implement, he said the expense was well justified considering what it would have cost to expand the building yet again.
Although the program was not initiated at corporate headquarters, the San Diego call center was offered the full support of corporate's information-systems department, as well as a dedicated human-resources director from the San Diego office just for the CyberAgent program.
Lawrence and McGinley hope the San Diego call center's CyberAgent program will serve as a template for other Cox call centers looking to try something similar. The Hampton Roads, Va., call center has already expressed interest in moving ahead with a Cyber-Agent program, McGinley added.
In addition to helping to ease the constrained space conditions at the call center, Lawrence said, the Cyber-Agent program has generated very positive feedback from employees involved.
Working at home allows one single mother to work in split shifts, which gives her time to carpool her kids from school, and it also helps Cox to gear up for peak call periods.
In another case, a wheelchair-bound employee was able to shave three hours off his commute time because he no longer needed to wait for public transportation to get to work.
"Now he grows tomatoes" in his spare time, Lawrence said. "This has a real impact on our employee's quality of life. That's huge."