Tapping Skilled, Educated Women for a Flexible, Home-Based U.S. Workforce

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A phenomenal, untapped labor pool in this country is the multitude of highly skilled, well-educated women based in their homes and eager to rejoin the workforce. Telework presents an incredible opportunity for business leaders to harness this unique workforce and realize the potential benefits of establishing a “virtual” infrastructure to support valued customers.

In recent years, I have observed a silent explosion in the home-based workforce. The transformation has been most notable in call center operations. Traditional call center jobs are being transferred from brick-and-mortar operations to virtual call centers based in home offices across the country, enabling many talented women to opt back into a more flexible workforce.

Working women today who feel compelled to make the hard choice between children and careers will not have to choose if they opt to work at home. Teleworking, especially in the call center industry, provides a way for working women to leverage years of specialized industry experience and career building, while still meeting the demands of child rearing.

With flexible schedules, part-time hours, and fully-wired home offices, stay-at-home moms can continue working in their chosen fields, reversing the effects of “brain drain,” and remaining engaged in the workforce while still managing family responsibilities. This same phenomenon has driven iVillage community leader armies and has fueled the growth of direct marketing companies such as Longaberger. The part-time, educated, home-based workforce represents a powerful shift in the U.S. economy.

Regain the Brains, Enhance Quality and Productivity

Several factors have converged to make home-based work the emerging model for specialized customer care: advanced technology, streamlined business processes, and a new generation of corporate managers who embrace “virtual servicing” as a results-oriented and efficient strategy. Today, more than 100,000 customer service representatives work from home, and IDC predicts that by 2010, that number will exceed 300,000.

In particular, more and more companies are opting to outsource specialized customer service to virtual contact centers. These virtual call centers are a network of home-based, skilled agents connected by technology who are enabled to deliver premium customer care more efficiently and productively than their counterparts in traditional call centers. Telework expands the national labor pool, allowing hiring managers to be more selective in building a team of niche market experts from all over the country. Having representatives living and working in different time zones facilitates shift-sharing and around-the-clock staffing.

In the face of political pressures and customer backlash, many companies are bringing back their call center operations from overseas. While some tasks remain well-suited for global outsourcing, specialized customer care is ideal for “homeshoring”. Outbound customer care, customer surveys, new customer welcomes, and seasonal spikes are all suited for skilled, home-based agents.

Specialized Customer Service Experts

Research has shown that home-based customer service representatives are older, more experienced, and better educated than their counterparts in traditional call centers. What does this mean for employers? Employers benefit from reduced turnover among a pool of seasoned professionals providing specialized customer care.

Specialized customer service representatives with expertise in their fields deliver premium results. For example, a gourmet food company or kitchen appliance manufacturer can staff its customer service line with former chefs and foodies (gourmet market employees), while a travel services company can enlist former travel agents or travel journalists. These industry experts can go beyond scripted answers to provide customers with insider knowledge about a particular hotel or airport and offer valuable insight into a travelers’ destination.

The appeal of home-based work to employees is equally compelling. For stay-at-home moms, home-based work provides flexibility and convenience, while maximizing brainpower and keeping professional skills sharp. Schedules can easily be tailored to accommodate early morning or late evening shifts, allowing employees to meet the school bus or attend little league games. Telework also saves on commuting and dry cleaning expenses and eliminates the need to live near costly urban centers.

In exchange for these perks comes tremendous loyalty. A corps of high-caliber, home-based employees appreciate the flexibility that their positions afford, and employees often respond with increased productivity and dedication.

Advanced Technology Fuels Virtual Offices

Improvements in technology have allowed home offices to be fully equipped with broadband access and soft switch technology for instantaneous routing of calls and email. Web-based tools provide virtual call centers with the same level of performance monitoring available to traditional call centers: audio and video monitoring, both real-time and recorded.

Technology also allows us to overcome one real hurdle often encountered with a widely dispersed workforce: maintaining a sense of cohesion and community in the workplace. Abundant communication devices solve this problem. Secure instant messaging and employee chat forums, combined with regional meetings and executive visits, go a long way to foster a sense of belonging.

Future of Virtual Servicing

The current trend of specialized customer care is a far cry from “get rich quick” schemes, with empty promises of “Work at Home/Earn $$$,” advertised by flyers stapled to utility poles at busy intersections. Such endeavors have, until recently, given home-based work a bad rap.

The truth is that major businesses stand to gain from recruiting home-based employees. In the next five years, there will be a continued dramatic shift due to this home-based workforce. I predict even more national, brand-conscious companies will take a step towards virtual servicing.

As I see it, it’s a winning scenario all around for the individual employees who are able to maintain a better work-life balance, for the companies that leverage the benefits of a virtual workforce, and finally for the U.S. economy as a whole, because it allows more jobs to remain here in the States.

About the Author

Mary A. Naylor, a 20-year veteran of the concierge services industry, is founder and CEO of VIPdesk, a leading provider of premium virtual contact center solutions serving Fortune 500 clients and their collective 10 million customers.
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