With the ever-present realities of work/life balance, globalization, sustainability and rising fuel prices, businesses face a whole new set of challenges in fostering a positive employee culture. Companies, and in particular hotels, that can offer a work-at-home alternative are set to reap many benefits. Not only will hoteliers have the ability to access a whole new applicant base for reservations and customer support positions, but they can also alleviate the growing costs associated with expanding call centers as a result of multiple property openings.
The Hilton model
Hilton Hotels Corporation developed such a program, called Hilton@Home, which is currently underway within Hilton Reservations & Customer Care (HRCC). Approximately 800 Hilton@Home agents, more than 25 percent of its total workforce, book global travel and provide customer care for more than 3,000 hotels in the Hilton family of hotels.
Within this first year of our work-at-home program, we've attracted experienced and educated professionals who may not otherwise consider a customer contact position in the typical call center environment. Applicants for employment largely come from stay-at-home parents, dual working families, retirees, students, primary caregivers or special-needs individuals. The program's flexibility attracts a high-caliber, diverse work force that appreciates the value proposition of working from home, without the hassle or cost of a commute.
Key program elements
When implementing a work-at-home program, there are a number of pieces to take into account. At Hilton, we found that the following are critical to a work-at-home program within the hospitality arena:
- Customizable work schedules online give agents control over the balance of their personal and professional priorities by being able to choose their own work schedules online, 24/7, and in minimum half-hour increments. Work schedules become the complement to team members' lives as opposed to a barrier to creating optimum work-life balance.
- Advanced technology brings sophisticated tools and resources directly to the agent's desktop. Agents need fast access to a rich, online knowledge base enabling superior customer support to book virtually any hotel stay around the world. Additionally, agents can access their own performance metrics and personalized scorecards from their desktops.
- Training courses for new hires and for existing team members should include a blend of classroom and online training. At Hilton, new agents are scheduled to be able to complete new hire training from home through a series of self-paced training courses, virtual classroom courses, and a virtual learning lab through HRCC by early 2009.
- Chat rooms and social activities enable at-home agents to communicate with their peers online and off. These professional and personal exchanges help create and sustain an environment of strongly informed and connected team members. Team meetings and one-to-one monthly meetings with management are held virtually.
How advanced is the technology needed for a work-at-home program? Quite simply, a thin client computer, DSL and a headset, together with highly effective in-person and electronic training modules, provide work-at-home team members the ideal mix of tools.
Thin clients built to be reliable and managed remotely also limit the threat of exposing reservations systems to viruses and spyware. Wyse V90 thin clients (www.wyse.com) running Windows XP Embedded (www.microsoft.com) can offer seamless compatibility with Win32-based applications, Internet Explorer, Windows Media Player, and connectivity with Citrix application delivery software.
The thin clients can connect back to the company's server through a Web browser running over the Citrix (www.citrix.com) Independent Computing Architecture (ICA) protocol. Agents can log into a desktop that's served from Citrix Presentation Server 4.5, and that desktop provides all the functionality for their thin clients.
At Hilton, agents work from Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Texas, where HRCC has a phone switch. They turn on their thin client running Microsoft Windows XP Embedded, log into the VPN, and then connect to Hilton's Automatic Call Distributor (ACD), which manages incoming calls and handles the calls based on the number called and an associated database of instructions.