How Apple Gets At-Home Workers To Work

Editor’s note: Ashley Verrill is a software analyst for Software Advice, as well as the Managing Editor for the Customer Service Investigator blog.

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.

All of these tactics are extremely impactful, not only for ensuring attendance, but fostering competition. Every advisor I spoke to reported never missing a session (though several mentioned other trainees dropping out, or being kicked out because of test scores). This was in part because the entire class sees when someone doesn’t respond to a prompt and when they fail a test.

In addition to ensuring attendance, Apple uses team psychology to keep workers engaged during and after the training period. Programs are taught to groups of 20-100 people who all live within 100 miles of its many “hub cities.” Often between instruction, the trainer asks the group to talk about themselves. They ask them about what they did that weekend, whether they have any pets, or even “why doesn’t everyone send the group a picture of what they’re having for lunch?” Some classes even had crazy hat day (that’s the silly part, I mentioned above).

This teamwork is also enforced by breaking the class into smaller groups for mock calls near the end of the program. One person in the sub-group fields a hypothetical customer call, while the entire team is asked to give feedback after the exercise is over. Many of the advisors reported regularly chatting on the computer, or even over the phone with classmates during and after instruction was over.

While some of these strategies were reminiscent of team-building exercises I did at summer camp, they worked. Two of the people I interviewed no longer work as an Apple advisor, but still keep in contact with a few people that were in their training group.

Finally, Apple creates buy-in from the team by enforcing company culture. The first few days of training are dedicated to describing the company’s history, the Cupertino campus culture, and what it was like working with Steve Jobs. Before training starts, each advisor is sent a care package that might have a T-shirt, plaque, mug, gift cards and other keepsakes demonstrating that they are “part of the Apple family,” as one person put it.

After training, workers begin a job that is extremely intense. One certified Apple trainer told me that managers closely scrutinize every call, and advisors are required to maintain a nearly perfect customer satisfaction score (among other metrics used to measure performance). All of this, and the advisors make between $9-$12 an hour (according to the advisors I spoke to).

Outsiders would probably argue that Apple’s training program and high work expectations aren’t really feasible for other support organizations — people would quit after the first day. I’d be inclined to agree. In the same way that customers will pay three times as much for their technology, workers will endure much more to get Apple on their resume and be “part of the family.”

So, while companies who manage teams permanently off-site can still realize the same benefits I mentioned at the outset — savings on real estate and a broader reach for recruiting — they may not be able to establish a remote team that is as effective as Apple’s. Only Apple can demand this level of intensity, because as one advisor put it, “Apple has no qualms with saying if you are not the best, you can always work somewhere else. They make that abundantly clear.”

[Image via Jeremy Jenum]