Thanks to the Internet and high-speed, instant access to messaging and information, the “home office” or “virtual workplace” is a reality in 2001.

More and more employees are working from home, as companies downsize the work area and cut down on overhead costs. Workers benefit by being able to avoid the daily commute to work and the time and trouble it takes to “prep” for work, too.

The exodus to home-based offices is a trend that will continue to grow and move into all business sectors — especially the hvacr industry. Specifically, contractors are sending their field workers home (not a new concept at all) and asking them to show up for regularly scheduled meetings or training sessions.

“The concept of the virtual office in the truck is one that we are trying to develop,” said J.R. Hutchinson of ISI Commercial Refrigeration, Dallas, TX. “The big goal is to make the technician more efficient. The more time spent out in the field taking care of calls, the more calls that can be handled and the better the technician’s productivity.

“Since technicians’ wages are increasing rapidly, we must get more efficiency out of them.”

Arthur Pickett of Royal Air Systems, Inc., North Reading, MA, said giving employees flexibility to work at home is a perk that could attract more people to his business.

“We feel that employee needs are changing and the increased flexibility of ‘at home’ offices will attract more qualified employees.”


It takes a lot of communication between parties to make the system work. According toThe News’ 2000 Salary and Service Rates Editorial Study, 61% of the assignments of daily service calls to technicians are performed offsite. For example, 30% of contractors responding to the survey said their dispatchers contact the techs each day, while 14% said work schedules for techs are provided the previous day.

While 71% of contractors use cell phones to communicate with technicians, they frequently use beepers/pagers (59%) and two-way radios (50%). Several respondents said their techs call in each morning for assignments using these devices.

Some contractors are putting a different spin to it all. Using modern technology, service vans are now becoming the virtual workplace.

“In order to reduce office time and the drive time associated with it, we need both voice and data communication,” said Hutchinson. “We went from radios in the trucks to Nextel direct connect in order to allow better communication between dispatch and the technician. The tech can now communicate outside of the truck, which is safer. He can call the office while standing in front of the equipment.”

Hutchinson outlined a plan being developed by outside sources who are involved in Global Positioning Systems (GPS). The companies include AT&T, @ Roads, and Champion Communi-cation. Their ideas include:

  • The dispatcher can assign a call on her computer screen to the technician. All the information she has about the call — location, bill to, terms, equipment model numbers, contact history, etc. — will be printed out on a workorder via a printer in the truck. The dispatcher will get an acknowledgement from the vehicle that the communication arrived.
  • The technician can press a key on a small device in the truck that will allow him to request basic additional information, either on a screen or on paper, such as information from a prior call to the customer.
  • The technician can enter basic information about the completed call using a numeric keypad. This will “complete” the call.
  • The technician can credit card swipe, verify checks, print invoices, and log onto the office computer system (network) inside the truck.
  • Hossein Bahadori of fahrenheit32, Inc., Houston, TX, said he’d rather see his techs as little as possible, but not because he doesn’t like them. In truth, he trusts them.

    “I have my location where I hold meetings and occasionally host customers and salespeople, but all of our activities are being handled via radio,” said Bahadori. “Employees report their location every morning and they are sent to the jobs. I don’t need to monitor them to see if they are cheating on their time.”


    Although contractors continue to encourage work-at-home or work-in-truck scenarios, some are taking a cautious approach to the concept.

    “I think you have to look at the type of work you’re expanding to decide which way to grow,” said Don Richardson of Richardson’s Mechanical, Plumbing & A/C, Shreveport, LA. “In construction, estimating takeoff and data processing could be done in the virtual office, but project management and supervision requires too much face-to-face every day with management to be done away from the office.

    “In service, telemarketing, care calls, and data input, this can be done in the home. When the rest of the functions in the construction and service market use e-commerce, more can be done away from the office.”

    Pickett added that despite modern communication devices, it is still necessary to have staff members in-house.

    “As we run a showroom for the public, we need to keep some staff in our retail location,” he said. “However, we feel these positions will only be approximately 30% of our future workforce.”

    But at least one contractor said the idea of a virtual workplace takes the people factor out of the business.

    “I feel we have lost sight of the fact that we are in the people business,” said John McCarthy Jr. of McCarthy-Hotenot-Siebler, Omaha, NE. “We don’t sell equipment or service. We sell solutions to people’s discomforts. How can we expect our technicians to be anything but robots if we only see them occasionally or once a year at a Christmas party?”

    Publication date: 01/29/2001