Work from Home

How Apple Gets At-Home Workers To Work

When a leaked memo broke the news earlier this year that Yahoo was ending its work-from-home program, CEO Marissa Mayer was both lauded and lambasted for the decision. Companies such as Best Buy followed suit by announcing they too would end their flexible work options, while some industry observers called the move an “epic fail.

The fact of the matter is, while not every remote worker is happier, more productive, and produces better quality work, as some have purported, telecommuting offers indisputable benefits for certain types of businesses. Apple, for example, permanently employs a massive network of remote customer support agents (dubbed At-Home Apple Advisors), saving them the huge real estate expense of a call center. At the same time, their recruiters can draw from an enormous talent pool since location isn’t a factor, and weather never prevents “advisors” from coming to work.

But running a team this way doesn’t come without challenges, chief among them being effectively training people in disparate locations. But Apple makes it work. I know this, because I recently emailed more than 40 current and former “Advisors” on LinkedIn to learn how. (Apple refused to comment. They are notoriously tight-lipped on strategy). The methods in every case were intense, sometimes sort of silly, and at other times borderline extreme. As one employee commented in a community thread, “I can honestly say the job was probably one of the most stressful I have ever had, and I used to counsel drug addicts and felons!”

For starters, according to the advisors I spoke to, Apple doesn’t tell trainees until after they’re “hired” that the four-week, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. training program is actually a testing period. The curriculum is broken into four, one-week sections that are a mix of live instruction and self-paced modules in iDesk. Then at the end of each week, everyone takes an exam. They have two chances to hit the grading benchmark (two advisors said this was 89 percent, one said it was 80 percent), before they are kicked out of the program. So immediately, workers have an impetus not only to pay attention, but to keep the job once it’s final because they worked so hard to get there.

Next, Apple uses a variety of tactics to ensure that would-be advisors are actually at their computers while training is going on. For example, trainers deliver regular prompts to each person throughout live instruction. These can be questions, requests for input, or just a cue for the trainee to click on. One former advisor I spoke to said Apple monitors mouse movements. If your mouse doesn’t move in a certain amount of time, then you’re sent a prompt. If you still don’t respond within 30 seconds, the trainer might actually call your cell phone.

In addition to these prompts, trainers can ask the class to turn on their cameras for group discussion at any moment, making it immediately clear if someone isn’t at their desk. Also, many of the test questions are worded in such a way that the trainee would only know the answer if they participated in all the past week’s activities.

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