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What the At-Home Apple Advisor Training Program Teaches Us about Remote Work

As someone who works from home and has managed remote workers for more than 10 years, I was very interested in this TechCrunch piece by Ashley Verrill of Software Advice about Apple’s training program for members of its remote support team called “At-Home Apple Advisors.”  Based on the number of comments the article generated, I am not the only one.  Remote work is becoming an increasingly popular arrangement, yet many companies are struggling to figure out if and how to leverage it.

The Apple program involves a four week 8:00 am – 5:00 pm training and testing period.  Trainees who do not participate in all sessions or who score poorly on the tests are not retained.  During the training period a variety of tactics are used to make sure that participants are engaged.  These include tracking mouse movements, on screen prompts, use of web cams and chats.  The curriculum is designed to mimic a classroom environment and serve different learning styles. The program also focuses on getting trainees familiar and connected to Apple’s core mission.  Not surprisingly, contact center managers have varying opinions regarding the intensity and effectiveness of Apple’s approach.

Clearly not every company has the technology, resources or need to implement a program like Apple’s, but looking beyond the specifics and focusing on the reasons behind them can be very instructive.  Here are a few things the program can teach us about the nature of remote work.

It’s Not for Everyone

Managers need to understand that working from home is a skill in itself and a person who performs well in an office environment may not be successful working remotely even if they are doing this same job.  The home environment is full of potential distractions and interruptions.  It can also be lonely.  Gauging a person’s ability to thrive in this environment can be tricky, especially if they are new to it.  Apple’s approach most certainly weeds out people who lack the ability to focus or who need more one on one encouragement.  Another method is to simply measure and monitor remoter worker productivity vs. in-office productivity with contact center software, business phone system and CRM tools.

The Balance Between Independence and Supervision is Tricky

I immediately had a gut reaction to the idea of mouse movement monitoring.  “No way.  I’m a grownup.”  Judging by the comments, I’m not the only one.  But, Apple’s desire to make sure their employees are engaged is not flawed, even if the tactic is a bit heavy handed.  The problem is, that the personality characteristics that make someone a good home-based worker - independence, self-reliance and resourcefulness – tend to make them adverse to micro-management.   That’s why it is very important that employees understand upfront exactly how, and for how long, their performance will be monitored.  Smart managers give workers some say in the process.  I’ve often been surprised by the great ideas employees give me when I ask them how I should assess their productivity.

Connection is Important

Apple’s program endeavors to help remote workers feel connected to the company, even if they never step foot in Cupertino.  This underscores the importance that every employee understands how the work they do furthers the company’s mission.  To be effective, this can’t be a one-time message.  Remote workers also need to feel connected to their mangers and peers and have clear knowledge about the resources and support available to them.  Although it isn’t always possible, I feel strongly that some face to face time is essential for long term employee retention and morale.

Technology Will Only Get You So Far

In addition to using state-of-the-art software tools, the Apple team carefully developed training curricula designed to reach learners of all different styles.  Recognizing that remote-workers are human beings, not just voices on the phone is a critical and often overlooked responsibility of managers.  Even if you are training or managing large numbers of employees, it is important to acknowledge them as individuals.  Just like their colleagues in the office, they want to understand what they need to do to advance within the company.  They need to be praised for excellent work and given support when they struggle.  It takes work and commitment on the part of management and is likely one of the reasons that some companies decide it isn’t right for them.

Internet technology and mobile devices are changing the very nature of what it means to work.  In the long run, companies that figure out how to attract and keep the best talent will beat out those that don’t.  Offering the ability to work from home is certainly one way to get there, but it can’t be done haphazardly.  Apple’s approach, while perhaps imperfect, shows that they do understand some things about the nature of remote work.  Others will do well to be mindful of the same principals.