Sean Douglas outlines how his company has embraced home-based working, to the tune of up to 75% of workers now working from home. The result? Happy employees, and happy customers.
When a business traveller phones American Express Global Business Travel for assistance, they might be surprised to know that the counsellor they are speaking with is located on the Gold Coast, in Yass or in Cervantes in Western Australia. This is because the majority of our travel counsellors have gradually been moving from our offices to a virtual or home-based work environment. This initiative has increased our travel counsellor’s job satisfaction, improved their work-life balance, increased our customer satisfaction and reduced our overheads. These are all great benefits, but truthfully, ones that we predicted and have been well-documented previously. The real surprises for us have been the noticeable increase in productivity and our ability to attract great talent.
For several years American Express Global Business Travel around the world has been focused on establishing a home-based working model for our travel counsellors, wherever possible. In Australia, we have gradually been moving the majority of our travel counsellors from our offices in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth to virtual working since 2011. Approximately 75% of our travel counsellors now work from home. This is one of the highest adoption rates of the initiative of any country within American Express Global Business Travel globally.
Our travel counsellors say they enjoy the flexibility that comes from home-based working and record some of the highest levels of job satisfaction across our company. Our organisation is now rich with stories of travel counsellors who have experienced lifestyle advantages from reducing commuting time including parents who are coaching their children’s sporting team, and those who are now simply more easily able to manage school drop-off’s and pick-up’s. We have also had instances where travel counsellors have moved interstate while keeping their jobs - a huge benefit when making such a big life-change.
There are of course benefits for our customers too. As a company we are now better equipped to manage fluctuations in call volumes than ever before. The immediacy with which we can scale-up our available resources is exemplary. Previously if we experienced any kind of travel disruption, it would have been necessary to factor in commuting time – which can be lengthy in the middle of the night or in peak hours- when planning our response. Now, in times of unexpected travel disruption, or simply busier periods, our home-based workers have the flexibility and willingness to quickly jump online to support increased call or email volume.
The greater productivity we have experienced since beginning this journey has been an unexpected but very welcome benefit. I attribute it to a happier and more engaged team. It’s also down to our ability to attract and secure great talent. Greater employee satisfaction and improved work-life balance amongst our home-based employees mean we are now seen as an ‘employer of choice’ within the travel industry which enables us to attract the best talent available. Further, virtual working means the talent pool from which we can draw now extends right across Australia, as we no longer require candidates to be based within commuting distance of our offices.
It surprises me to occasionally hear executives at other companies talk about the expense associated with home-based working and their struggle to justify the business case for it. Yes, there is certainly an initial outlay in setting up an employee with a comfortable and safe working environment at home, but we have ultimately been able to realise cost savings through a reduction in real estate costs, as well as costs relating to our staff attrition, which is now significantly lower than average call-centre attrition rates.
If I was to offer advice to other companies who are about to implement home-based working, it would be around ensuring robust plans in place for communications and instilling company culture within the virtual workforce. We are now in a stage of our evolution of this concept where many of our new travel counsellors are actually recruited directly to home-based positions. It can be a challenge to ensure our employees who have never worked full-time within one of our offices have a true sense of our company culture. We view technology as a key enabler for us to overcome this obstacle. Through regular calls, web conferences, video messages from leaders, instant messaging, and online team building exercises such as group trivia sessions, we enable employees to work effectively and also connect with one another in a professional and social manner.
We also still encourage office-based working, one day a month if possible, for those who are easily able to get to an office as one way to gain a greater sense of company culture and to simply enjoy those ‘water cooler’ moments that come from face-to-face interaction with peers. In addition, we still support full-time office-based working for travel counsellors who need it.
Home-based working is not a new concept but it’s certainly a growing trend. We are pleased with our approach so far. Although we have had overwhelmingly positive feedback we will remain focused on equipping our home-based employees with the right technology, tools and resources to ensure the company culture still permeates and employees still feel part of a broader team whilst doing their jobs effectively
About the author
Sean Douglas is the vice president & head of service delivery for American Express Global Business Travel, APAC