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Customer Service: The Nature of Distributed Work

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Anthony Buller
November 21, 2022

A lot of words describe the act of working together while physically apart. Remote work. Telework. Telecommuting. Distributed work. Virtual work. Virtual teams. Many of these also matter to customer service as we are more “distributed” in the public sector than ever before. For the federal government, as an example and according to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), in 2020 50 percent of federal employees were telework eligible and 90 percent did telework. States have telework (see California as an example) and local governments do too, but percentage-wise local governments have fewer eligible employees.

Though we have been serving people in the distributed environment—can I say forever?—the demands are growing and governments and employees need to improve. For government and industry of all types, customer service when the provider is away from the customer needs to be a priority.

I prefer the term “distributed” and I define distributed as a term that modifies the word that follows it by adding a geographic separation—you just aren’t in arm’s length of each other. I studied distributed customer service for a capstone project for my master’s degree I plan on completing this semester.

I learned a few things I want to share and the first thing is—if you are looking for one source to describe how to improve customer service and experience in the distributed environment…good luck. I could never find one. There are lots of books about remote teams and telework practices. There are policies and procedures. There are also a lot of books about customer service and experience too. But nothing seems to marry these things up in one place. Part of my studies involved first identifying the best practices of customer service in the distributed environment. I found 14 total and 8 of them focus on what I call the “nature” of distributed work and 6 are more “customer-centric.” This column provides those first 8 and offers a little about each one. Please note and understand that I also believe in a broad term for customer that includes the people being served and internal customers, your peers, even supervisors.

The eight customer service best practices about the nature of distributed work include:

  • Create the impression of colocation by investing in Information and Communication Technology (ICT). ICT is what brings us the flexibility to perform distributed work. It’s also about choices—does your employer buy desktops or laptops? If they buy laptops they are potentially more likely to support distributed work.
  • Enhance formal or informal communications while distributed to replace the lost incidental meetings and informal in-person communications. Especially with internal customers, we can lose the informal interactions that happen in line at the vending machine or while walking to a meeting. You have to replace these intentionally.
  • Evaluate employee suitability to meet distributed customer needs. Not everyone is cut out to work away from the office and without supervision. Even if the job is appropriate for distributed work—is the employee?
  • Assess if distributed employees are experiencing more job satisfaction. A key argument for permitting workplace flexibilities such as distributed work is that job satisfaction will rise. And the argument goes: if satisfaction rises, quality of service and performance rises. You should assess if at least the first part is true.
  • Evaluate if distributed employees are trusted and empowered to meet customer needs. This area that needs to be assessed looks more at the supervision of employees and whether they can meet customer needs in the distributed environment. Many supervisors distrust distributed workers and the whole concept itself less than they trust workers they can see working (or not). And if distrusted, that employee may not be empowered to perform at their best.
  • Assess distributed employee engagement. A lot of assessment is happening here! This last one is asking if employees are engaged (such as via the Federal Employee Engagement Survey FEVs). Engaged employees are more proactive at work and reach out to others more, including customers.
  • Protect privacy and data in the distributed environment. It’s obvious that there is increased privacy and data risk in the distributed work environment so that must be addressed through sound policies, practices and internal controls.
  • Conduct effective distributed employee performance management. A big one—and hard one—has been saved for last. As a second level federal supervisor of employees spread throughout the Western United States, I know that performance management is tough in the distributed environment. To be most successful my staff need metrics and I need to invest more time engaging them and those they serve.

This column explained the eight best practices in customer service around the nature of distributed work. The next column will turn the arrow around to point at the customer—I call the next six the customer-centric best practices.

Author: Anthony Buller has deployed to more than 40 presidentially declared major disasters and emergencies in his 17 years of federal service. He leads a team of emergency management professionals covering the western US for a federal agency. He can be reached at: [email protected].

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