story by Jamie Smith
When people in the Wal-Mart supplier community refer to the “home office,” most of the time they are speaking of the Wal-Mart General Home Office — the large, single-story building on South Walton Boulevard in Bentonville.
For some suppliers, home office has an entirely different meaning and it’s a concept that, while far from new in the world of business, is not as common in the supplier community. That’s the idea of suppliers supporting Wal-Mart working from their home instead of in an office filled with team members.
Marty Greene lives in Searcy and has worked from home for five years. He is a representative for Carl Buddig Company.
“The home office-based vendor community is substantial and there is a significant amount of interaction,” he said.
There are advantages and disadvantages to working from a home office instead of a traditional corporate location, he said. For him, and so far the company, the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.
“We evaluate scale, leverage and productivity on a regular basis and how it will improve service levels, alignment and shareholder value,” he said.
Not having a commute is an obvious plus but having a set routine is still vital to productivity, he said. Productivity is increased by the decreased level of distractions.
“In the larger offices, there are the normal distractions of having 12 to 20 people in an open floor plan or cubicle plan. There’s just more distractions,” he said.
While a set routine is necessary, working from home does allow some level of flexibility. For a company that works with representatives in multiple time zones, this is a major advantage.
For the company, there’s the evident cost-savings, Greene said. Instead of paying Northwest Arkansas office rental prices, which can be at a premium, the company is able to save money by simply supplying him with the machinery and other tools he needs to work.
A home-based office allows for other flexibilities besides schedule. For one, it allows him to easily work with Bentonville-based Wal-Mart while living in Searcy. He is also able to dress more casually during the average work day.
“You don’t have to put on a coat and tie,” he said. “You can have casual Friday every day if you want.”
The lack of a large office with many co-workers means fewer distractions, but it also means the potential for feeling disconnected, he said.
That makes strong communication skills all the more vital. Professionals who have worked in a team environment in the past understand the team dynamic and are more likely to have the communication skills necessary to make working at home successful.
Another potential disadvantage when you’re the sole person working in the office is that all office duties fall on the one person. If the computer goes down, there’s not an IT department in the next room to ask for help. Same thing if the copier breaks down. Other administrative duties such as making deliveries or running other errands must also be a scheduled part of the day, he added.
The biggest challenge is making sure to have a healthy work/life balance, which is important for any employee. It can sometimes be more difficult when the physical location doesn’t change for the employee.
“You don’t ever really leave the office so you need to make sure that you do ‘go home’ at the end of the work day,” he said. “You need to have the discipline. You are there to support the team, but also have the balance to know when it’s time to go home.”
Jami Dennis works for a supplier part-time and also operates Northwest Arkansas Vendor Services, which is a consultant business where she offers support to suppliers for account and report management. She lived in Bentonville for many years but now her and her family live north of Bella Vista in southwest Missouri. She used to work for Wal-Mart, but started working from home when she went to work on the supplier side, Dennis said.
The supplier she works for is not quite big enough to require a separate office that is fully staffed, she said.
“There’s a trend that the smaller suppliers find someone to work for them (from home) and they are saving on that overhead,” she said.
The advantages include the flexibility that the home office provides for her family life. She and her husband have four children ages three to 19.
“I don’t have to be 8 to 5,” she said. “I have set arrangements of available hours but there’s none of the ‘what do I do if one of the children are ill?’”
Working in an office can sometimes force uncomfortable choices for some parents. She wasn’t in a situation where she could be a stay-at-home mom and she enjoys being able to work.
The greater flexibility also decreases potential perception problems from co-workers. If an employee needs to leave in the middle of the day for an errand but more than makes up that time at night, the co-workers often only see that the employee leaves and the perception is that the person is slacking off. That doesn’t happen in a home office, she said.
While some suppliers provide the machinery for their home-bound employees, others provide a small increase in the overall salary so that the employee can purchase those items on their own. Dennis has worked with both situations, she said.
Overall, allowing employees from smaller suppliers to work from home works out best for both the employee and the employer, she said.
“By the time you figure out a price per square foot to rent space, (the costs are lower),” she said. “The employees are happier because there’s less stress.”
Dennis echoed Greene’s thoughts about communication being key to success.
“When you work from a home office you don’t have that camaraderie,” she said. “You have to be good about weekly meetings and have clear goals.”
SUPPLIER TO THE SUPPLIERS
Chris Campbell works from a home office in Northwest Arkansas as a representative of the California-based Coupons.com. The company provides coupon programs to Wal-Mart, the suppliers and other national brands that creates coupons online that shoppers can use. He is the only local staff person for the company but there will probably be another person joining him in a few weeks, Campbell said.
The system works well for many reasons, he said. The cost benefits and quieter atmosphere are major advantages for him and the company, Campbell said.
“You can control your environment better,” he said. “In our particular business, there’s no reason to have a (bricks and mortar location). There’s no need to have that exposure from the street for the public.”
He is easily able to meet clients at their offices or in a mutually beneficial public spot, such as a coffee shop.
“There are no issues at all from a meeting perspective,” he said. “The culture is reasonably casual so it works to meet at a variety of locations.
“Working from home works well with (the Wal-Mart/supplier) culture. It’s all about cost savings and reusing resources.”