Part two in a series on corporate travel agents moving from central offices and call centers to home-based offices.
As in so many businesses, corporate travel agencies and travel management companies increasingly rely on a remote home-based workforce. For those who sell business travel, working from home has become a way of life. But is this a good thing?
It’s easy to see the upside of corporate agents working from home: No commute, lower overhead, fewer distractions, more scheduling flexibility, greater efficiency and less entanglement with office politics are just the beginning.
But there are downsides too. Among them – little or no face-to-face connection, which has repercussions for agent and employer alike.
Last to know?
“I sometimes feel out of the loop,” said Claire Adinaro, a corporate agent for San Francisco-based Casto Travel.
Adinaro has been working from home since she moved to Virginia more than a decade ago and Casto helped her set up a home office.
She is on the same phone rotation as the rest of her team in San Francisco and other locations and uses the same corporate tools as her co-workers across the country.
“My supervisor and office-based agents make a real effort to keep us all up to date, but there are times I feel like I’m the last to know something,” Adinaro told Travel Market Report. “There is no face-to-face interaction with the rest of the team when you work at home.”
Yet Adinaro has also grown accustomed to working in her own quiet space. “When I go back to the home office for our annual training session, I find the working environment terribly distracting.
“I enjoy that once-a-year visit to reconnect, but I don’t know that I could go back to an office environment on a permanent basis. Working at home has too many advantages.”
The story is similar for supervisors.
Becky Cole supervises a virtual team of Atlas Travel and Technology Group corporate agents from her home office in New Orleans. Cole has worked from home since the early 2000s.
“I miss the social side of working in an office, but I sure don’t miss the commute,” she said.
“I don’t see my colleagues physically very often, but we’re in constant contact electronically. The social side of working in an agency environment is gone, but the professional side is seamless. It’s like I’m sitting one desk over from the person I’m dealing with.”
Agency execs have a more nuanced take on staff working from home.
From the employer's point of view, one positive of embracing virtual teams is that it allows an agency to recruit from a national and international pool of agents.
“If you rely only on office-based agents, you deprive yourself,” said Goran Gligorovic, executive vice president of Omega World Travel.“Many of our best agents are part of military families, which means they move on a regular basis.
“When employment is not linked to geography, you can draw on a much larger pool of highly qualified agents and continue to provide the kind of service your clients have come to expect.”
Gligorovic sees other factors favoring a home-based work force. “The travel agent job can be tough on employees in expensive urban centers. An urban office can leave employees with long commutes, which detracts from job satisfaction and is a problem in bad weather.”
Execs at some agencies that embrace virtual teams worry about maintaining the corporate culture that made the agency successful in the first place.
Casto Travel’s work force is about 50% home-based, and that’s the saturation point for company president and chief operating officer Marc Casto. His focus has shifted to office-based hiring.
“It’s hard to expand and grow the culture of a company that is primarily virtual,” he said. “There is no water cooler where people can learn and absorb the culture that makes a company unique and successful.”
Making it work
To keep in touch with employees across the country, Casto uses an electronic publication.
Every agent team has a weekly virtual meeting that brings home-based and office-based agents together. And teams meet annually at Casto’s headquarters office in San Jose, Calif., for a week of training, working and shared experiences.
Casto said he encourages teams to spend time together outside office hours to help strengthen personal relationships that can weaken without regular face-to-face contact.
Managing a national employee network also can add to an agency’s administrative burden.
Dealing with tax and employment regulations across multiple states is a pain, Gligorovic said, but it’s no worse than having 150 physical offices scattered around the company.
Regulatory burdens can be a challenge, agreed Lisa Buckner president, central and west regions for Direct Travel. Still it’s a challenge that HR offices are already used to dealing with.
“We see more advantages for home-based agents than disadvantages,” Buckner said.
“From our perspective, the only people who have to be in the office are the company leaders. You need a visible presence for your physical staff. We can all be much more productive working at home, but management needs to be onsite to work with your central core team.”