How to Implement Telecommuting in a Hurry
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Replacing In-Person Meeting with Teleconferencing
This is a topic is discussed more in a companion article Building Your Own Teleconference System with Asterisk and Gizmo. Although that article was written primarily with schools and universities in mind, it is equally applicable to most businesses. You can use free software, Asterisk and Gizmo, combined with generic computer hardware to build a teleconferencing platform capable of handling any number of callers, often without requiring the use of conventional telephone service (which will be slow and difficult to provision in an emergency such as a pandemic).
Most businesses already have a teleconferencing service, such as WebEx or InterCall. However, I strongly recommend that businesses look into building their own Asterisk platform for larger conferences and use PC-based Internet telephony services, such as Skype for smaller conferences. Hosted teleconferencing services can be quite expensive, some charge nearly 30 cents/minute per caller which adds up very quickly. These providers may also have severe supply-side bottlenecks if millions of people start telecommuting en masse. By building your own system using equipment and facilities you control, you'll be autonomous, have more options, and incur a surprisingly minimal cost.
Configuring Your Call Center to Allow Telecommuting
This is where things get ugly, depending on how good or bad your company's phone system is. If you have the latest state-of-the-art equipment, enabling call center workers to telecommute should be as simple as setting a few options in a web form. However most companies don't have systems like this, and run their call centers in a centralized way with everyone under one roof, all hard-wired to a automated call distribution (ACD) system.
There is a good reason for this -- an ACD is designed to hand calls off to workers as quickly as possible and to do this it needs to know if you are at your desk, already on a call, etc. If the ACD blind transfers a call to your home phone, you might answer it or you might not. If you don't answer the ACD, it has just wasted 30 seconds trying to send a call that could have been answered immediately by somebody else.
The way around this is to create remote extensions, which is easier to do now with VoIP technology. The way you do this is by connecting an adapter to each call center worker's telephone extension. (It looks just like a regular telephone or headset to the company phone system, and is connected via a standard phone cord.) This adapter is, in turn, connected to your company's data network via an Ethernet cable. It is paired with another adapter, located at the employee's home office or remote site, and talks to it via the Internet. The employee connects a standard telephone or headset to the remote adapter.
When the employee takes his or her home phone off the cradle, the Internet adapter sends a message to its counterpart at the office to do the same. The office adapter mimics the electrical behavior of a phone that is off-hook, so the phone system does not attempt to send calls to it. Conversely, if the home worker's phone is on-hook, the office phone system will know this, and if it sends a call to the worker's extension, the office adapter will send a message to the remote adapter telling it to ring the phone connected to it. If the home worker answers, the two adapters route audio over the Internet connection between them. The office phone system is fooled into thinking the home worker picked up a phone at his desk. This is a simplified description of the process, and there are a lot of network security issues that are beyond the scope of this article.
This is a bit of a Rube Goldberg solution but it works well enough, and if you are using an older phone system this is probably your only option. A number of companies sell this type of gear, with different companies specializing on different types of ACDs and PBXs. Do a search on the terms "remote extension" or "foreign extension" and the name of your phone system, for a good starting point. The downside of this approach is that it will cost several hundred dollars per user (at a minimum) and each remote worker will need to have a reliable broadband connection. This system will take time and money to implement, so you should start working on plans to do it now. You will be able to use this system in non-emergency situations to allow your most productive call center workers to telecommute, a great incentive for people to work harder to earn this perk.
The key here is to be able to close your entire call center and continue more or less normal operations. You have to be able to do this because during a real pandemic, you'll either be forced to close your office, or you will lose so many employees through sickness or fear that you might as well be shut down. If you can deal with this situation proactively and move your operations offsite as a precautionary measure it will be much less disruptive, and will also help to maintain employee morale. Assuming even a high cost of $1,000 to $2,000 per employee to implement remote extension capability, the cost of not having that call center seat occupied for days or weeks at a time is probably greater than the cost of upgrading or jury-rigging the phone system.
Other Options for Small Businesses
Another option for smaller businesses is to implement a virtual ACD using either Asterisk or a hosted communication service such as Virtual PBX. In an emergency, be it a pandemic or a garden-variety disaster like a malfunctioning sprinkler system, just shunt all calls over to the backup system, which will route calls to people to home, via VoIP phones, etc.
Asterisk has a pretty decent built-in ACD feature, which you can use to route calls to people on an orderly basis. You can connect the Asterisk box either to your company PBX, or you can buy VoIP origination service from Voxbone, Junction Networks, or other providers. You'll give each of your employees a VoIP phone that they connect to their home network and broadband connection. The phone will register itself with the Asterisk box as if it were a local extension. The Asterisk box and company firewall needs to be configured so that phones can connect to it remotely, and you'll need to have a fast enough Internet connection out of your office to carry the voice calls (figure about 100kbps per voice call on average). That's one option for more technically-adept small businesses.
Another option is to rent a phone system from a hosted communication service provider such as Virtual PBX. These services give you a local or toll-free number and emulate all of the features found in a high-end PBX/ACD system. To receive calls, your employees only need to have an ordinary telephone. No broadband service or Internet phone is required. The only downside with these services is that they charge relatively steep per-minute charges. They are also generally small companies and may not be able to accommodate a large surge in demand, which is possible if businesses and schools across the country are forced to shut down or curtail operations for weeks at a time.
The basic advice I have to offer to businesses is pretty simple: think carefully about what services are essential and what you need to do to stay in business and meet demand for four to eight weeks at a time. Think about how to triage activities so less important tasks can be backlogged, allowing you to focus on the most important transactions and services. Also, think about how customer demand is likely to increase, decrease, or change in nature and how to set customer expectations appropriately.
If you are in an information- or service-oriented business, your call center will be an important point of contact with the outside world, so you need to think about how you can move most or all of your employees offsite without shutting this facility down. If you have a relatively new system, you should be able to do this relatively easily, although I am sure your equipment vendor will want to sell you a software upgrade. If you are stuck with an older, less flexible system, your options are more limited so you should start working out a plan and budget for implementing workarounds now. In a best-case scenario, implementing a system will take weeks or months, so don't expect to be able to do it on short notice.
Above all, be flexible. You may be faced with a situation where your entire facility is shut down and a large fraction of your employees are out sick or scared to come to work. You won't be able to predict the details of how things will pan out, so the important thing is to spend some time thinking about how to triage work, improvise ad-hoc ways to get the job done, and use technology where you can to support a distributed workforce.
The good news, as bad as the rest of the news may be, is that you have never had more options at hand; if you are clever about the way you use these tools you'll be able to handle whatever mother nature throws at you.
The following quote is from Continental Airlines CEO Gordon Bethune:
The major air carriers are racing to survive. And it's not pretty. We kind of look like a bunch of three-legged horses on a muddy track. But there will still be a winner and a loser.
It will be easy to concentrate on everything that is going wrong if this scenario does happen, but it is important to focus on what you are doing right versus your competitors. You may be floundering and barely able to stay afloat, but so will everyone else. Remember that. The goal isn't to sail through a disaster of this magnitude unscathed. The goal is to stay in business and maintain some sense of normalcy for a few months until the crisis is over.
Brian McConnell is an inventor, author, and serial telecom entrepreneur. He has founded three telecom startups since moving to California. The most recent, Open Communication Systems, designs cutting-edge telecom applications based on open standards telephony technology.
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