When a Flexible Work Force Makes Sense

Susan Hall

The headlines recently that Best Buy was eliminating 600 jobs at Geek Squad had me scratching my head, since its website still listed thousands of Geek Squad positions all across the country. Writing for Dice.com, I contacted Best Buy spokesman Bruce Hight to ask whether those jobs would still be filled. He said yes, that it was simply a matter of realigning the employees' skills with its business.

Best Buy is trying to reinvent itself more in the image of Apple with smaller stores centered around its version of the Genius Bar. Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Securities, told The Wall Street Journal that because Best Buy doesn’t have an advantage on products or prices, its “the only real differentiator” is service and advice.

Flexible work force company OnForce contacted me, saying it believes there's a flaw in Best Buy's labor strategy, since the skills required in field service work change rapidly. Last summer I wrote about OnForce's model, which is to vet local independent contractors by ZIP code to help regional companies line up workers so they can bid on work such as installing Wi-Fi at McDonald's across the country and updating point-of-sale systems.

OnForce COO Bill Lucchini described the challenges of providing that type of work:

Service happens in somebody’s home, in a ZIP code, on a street. So in that local area, you have to be able to provide that service need when customer wants it and you have to be able to handle spikes in demand and changes in skill sets. … In January, after Christmas, when everybody got their flat-screen TVs, there’s a lot of work in putting TVs up on walls until Super Bowl Sunday. After that, there’s not much at all. … There’s a ton of upgrades to point-of-sale systems in the summer, but during November and December, there’s nothing. There’s repair work only.

So there’s variability in the type of work, in the demand for work and it all comes down to this local area. So managing that is very difficult. The problem with having technicians on payroll is that you have them whether or not consumers are asking for TVs on walls, so you’re paying people to be idle a good portion of the time. Industry standards say that in field service work, 60 percent of the time technicians are being productive, but 40 percent of the time you’re just paying them to be around. So there’s a lot of inefficiency.

Because the workers OnForce lines up are local businesspeople, they must keep their skills up to date:

With independent contractors, they’re responding every day to market pressure. So if there’s a new type of networking device that I need to install, then I better go learn how to do that. If I find that I’m doing much more integration of mobile devices into an existing network, I can become an expert at it. If I don’t, I’m going to go out of business. It’s not the same dynamic with employees. So I think Best Buy’s work force had gotten out of touch with what the market needed. … I think people are dealing much more with mobile devices than PCs or laptops, so the work is less about switching out hard drives than it is about networking and connectivity …

He said among the hottest skills are networking video to the household, connecting mobile devices back to the home network and other systems, security and green home systems are among the emerging skills, including energy monitoring.

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