Working. Remotely.

On Tuesday, as a part of our Digital Communications Management module, we were asked to work remotely in one room on one project. The basic premise was that we were to answer a difficult question on social network analysis. We were to only use the online tools available to us and if needed we could use chat functions on our phones, Facebook or whatever we could access.

Our ‘learning outcome’ was to see if we could produce and deliver a presentation answering the question without actually talking to one another. We sat in silence for four hours, working collaboratively as though we were spread out around the country. The key element was to check on the usefulness of the online tools and critique the process. The question was irrelevant. I decided to write this as I have experience in homeworking…

Then this happened.

This is beautiful, touching and hilarious.  That the dad, one Robert Kelly, South Asian security expert, valiantly managed to continue without cracking a smile is a credit to his professionalism  There are so many amazing things about this video.

The flippant, who gives a damn dance of the first child, the not inconsiderable attempt to palm the child away while things escalated in the background, the split second where child number one gets tucked into her cheese stick, the second kid wheeling into the room at such an impressive speed. The man’s wife, skidding through the door in a desperate attempt to stop the horror she knew would be developing on television screens up and down the country. The kids being dragged out, the kid in the walker getting stuck.

The Door. My God the door, the one thing between that man, the BBC and a happy kid dancing that no one needed to see. It’s a remarkable thing; if you haven’t laughed to the point where you can’t breathe then quite frankly you’re dead inside. The fact that they were having a very serious discussion on issues around South Korea and North Korea is utterly lost amid the chaos. Incredible stuff.

The one thing this video does is highlight the horrors that can evolve when you think you can calmly, happily work from home. Your home is supposed to be a safe, happy place. One where, if you fancy such a thing, you can sit there all day in your jacks. No one can see you, no one cares. It’s probably not meant to be viewed across the world in a video that amazed me for the sheer depth and speed of its virality. The poor man and his family will never live this down, I just hope it generates as much laughter with every repeat. It would appear working from home while broadcasting around the world can be a dangerous thing. I guarantee there is a new BBC policy on Skype chats before tea time. One that involves locks.  So, back to this whole working remotely thing.

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For those of you who know me, I’ve never been a fan of the Daily Fail. In an act of what appears to have been sheer lunacy and after two years of ‘your not from round here’ excuses in not getting a proper job, I applied for a job working from home for Photobox. It was an application submitted in utter desperation, there are bills, a mortgage, children, food, clothing, heat, builders, and a lego habit to pay for. So, I ended up working from our dining room (Now my ‘office’) answering calls to the Photobox customer care line. I know a few things about cameras, the technical issues you might have in managing and printing your images, uploading images, aspect ratios, that kind of thing and to be fair it was a fairly easy, happy(ish) six months. It was enough to keep the wolf from the door and gave me a bit of time to continue applying for jobs. And enough time to be told that I still wasn’t from here.

The Photobox gig worked fine until just after Christmas of 2015. Photobox had more than enough people in its post-Christmas lull and the company I worked for needed to move staff around, I ended up answering calls for the Daily Mail. Grand I thought, I’ll get a job soon, somewhere where being from here isn’t relevant. I was caught in a call center nightmare. Cut to six months later, months of anguish, right wingers complaining about immigrants, themmuns and the EU; add the small matter of a breakdown and here we are, in a lecture room not talking to each other.

Home working?

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Who’d have it?

So this company, who shall remain nameless, offer a remote customer care line deal for about a dozen high street names. There is around 800 or so staff answering calls for the Daily Fail, a significant supplier of private healthcare, a couple of high street stores, a vehicle rescue company and some online retailers. To give you some perspective on how that works I’ll explain the two contracts I was on. Both relied on Abobe Rooms for staff management, meetings, and general discussion and any questions staff might have. (Monitored, recorded, subject to rigorous management intervention)

The Photobox system was based on what were essentially free applications, One Drive, Google Sheets and a few image and document sharing tools. Communication with the warehouses to check on orders, colour issues and whatnot was done through Google Sheets.  Really.

The Daily Fail system was a little smoother, it used its own systems and processes that were frequently prone to technical issues and needed new passwords every week or so.  Too frequent at any rate.  The company started to use a screen recorder that used so much RAM that it managed to crash every machine staff used.  The RAM requirements were more that the company minimum that all staff had.  It was atrocious and significantly impacted staff, stress levels and pay.  If staff logged off to reboot they didn’t get paid.  On one day I had to reboot 37 times.  The one thing both accounts had in common was that they were significantly cheaper than the cost of a bricks and mortar call center.

The staff was paid minimum wage which, when you consider that they had to pay for heat light, telephone lines and broadband, essentially meant they were paid below minimum wage. In the main, they manage to get away with it. But the bigger question is what does working remotely on frequently weird shifts using processes that are unpredictable and prone to crashing do to staff, their work practices, and morale?

crap

It was pretty bad. Systems rarely worked, there was no opportunity to stand at the water fountain to complain about a manager or complain that literally, no one on the Photobox account had the remotest idea how a camera worked. Some weren’t even sure what JPEG meant.   Take for instance one customer who was told the image she wanted to print of her son was probably turned down because of child protection issues. Well, no, it was a scan of an old holiday picture that was done at such a phenomenal resolution every scratch had gone through the system as a transparency, the printer didn’t know what to do with it. It took three days, I’m not even kidding, to calm this woman down.

Online working, working from home is not a new phenomenon, the trick is, and for me, this was the ‘learning outcome’ from Tuesday, that if you don’t invest in some of the amazing tools that are out there, or develop your own, it descends into chaos, confusion, and no one answers questions. Or, you know, some muppet tells someone they’ve submitted an image that amounts to child exploitation.

If you are going to arrange for a whole load of people to work from home, make sure the tools work, make sure the tasks are clearly laid out, that there is time for actual engagement and that management processes are smooth. Take your time and be patient. Give your people an opportunity to actually engage with each other once in a while.

And for God sake lock the door.

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