Telergos, a remote word processing agency in northern England
This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in Teleworker magazine, 1999
Teleworking, according to the hoary old media stereotype, was going to be all about shifting work out from the cities to remote and beautiful areas of the countryside. Forget London, (the story went), get your modem plugged in, and do the work remotely - say, from one of those small northern market towns up on the edge of the Pennines.
As we now know, this vision of the future of work has turned out to be rather too simplistic, and the growth of telework hasn't been accompanied by a mass migration to the hills. But the example of the remote office services company Telergos, which is indeed to be found in a small town in the north Pennines, shows that the old ideas about teleworking are not entirely unfounded. The headline, in fact, writes itself: Goodbye Elephant & Castle, hello Barnard Castle.
Telergos (the name comes from a conflation of the Greek words for distance and work) operates a dictation transcription and word processing service primarily for London-based client companies from one of the most attractive towns in County Durham. The castle which gives Barnard Castle its name is ruined but still a powerful sight on a headland overlooking the Tees, and the town also attracts visitors to the nearby Bowes Museum. But Telergos is up at the top of the town, beyond the tourist shops, in a small unit in a modern estate on the edge of the fields.
This unit is the workplace for Telergos's fifteen employees (all women), who together make up what effectively amounts to a remote typing pool for the firm's clients. The letters and documents which need typing arrive at Barnard Castle normally in electronic form, as digital sound files originally recorded on dictation machines supplied by Telergos itself and sent down the wire. These files are then passed to one of the typists to be word processed, with the end result subsequently checked for accuracy by a small proof-reading team before being returned to the client company by e-mail as a word processed file.
Michele Smith, Telergos's Accounts Manager, says that she does not necessarily expect her clients to outsource all their typing requirements in her direction. "We are used the majority of the time as an alternative to bringing in temps," she says. "Our hourly rates are very competitive compared with what temps would cost." However, she adds that one company recently restructured its in-house typing and secretarial support services, so that much more everyday word processing now ends up in Barnard Castle.
Telergos has built up in the six years since it was first established a range of customers, including firms involved in management consultancy and legal services, a number of insurers and property companies as well as a well-known telecoms business. In each case, the word processing is undertaken using the software being used in-house, so Telergos's workers make use of AmiPro and Word Perfect as well as various versions of Word. Documents are also produced using each company's own style and design templates, the idea being that they should be indistinguishable from material produced in-house.
"Our clients very rarely come up here, and I think they can't really picture how it works," Michele Smith says. Instead, she visits them: "I make regular trips to London, once or twice a month," she says.
Telergos chooses not to issue formal contractual agreements for customers, preferring to operate on a more flexible basis. Each piece of work is timed, and charged at the appropriate proportion of the hourly rate (Telergos operates a standard hourly tariff, which the firm coyly declines to reveal on the grounds of commercial sensitivity. The normal turnaround time is 24 hours. For 50p an hour more, work will be turned around in four hours.)
All this demands careful management of the work process. Although the firm has undertaken out-of-hours work in the past for an American client, it currently operates only during the standard business hours of 9am to 5.30pm. Seven staff are full-time, but Telergos also makes use of part-time workers, mainly to tie in with school commitments for women with younger children. Some part-time staff work from 9am to 3pm, whilst others come in either for the morning (9am-1pm) or afternoon (1pm-5pm) shifts.
Telergos tries to offset what can be very repetitive work. "When people have been here a certain length of time, we tend to allocate them a client to look after. They are responsible, for example, for creating the templates to be used. We also have three full-time people who share responsibility for the technical side of the operation," Michele Smith says.
The fifteen employees in Barnard Castle are not the only people, however, who can claim to work for Telergos. Across the English Channel, a French sister company bearing the same name also operates a remote tele-secretarial service. In fact the French operation, which began in 1989, provided the model for the Barnard Castle business and the French are part-shareholders in the UK firm.
The story behind this unusual arrangement is told by Ken Kyle, director of the UK Telergos business and the person who was responsible for suggesting to Telergos's founder that the company look to establish an English branch. "I was doing work in the telecoms consultancy area at the time, around 1991 and 1992, and said to Telergos 'why don't we do this in the UK?'," he says. "So I set up Telergos here, copying the French model, in late 1993."
The French Telergos was the brainchild of Denis Haulin, a former insurance company managing director who became aware that secretarial services undertaken in Paris could be undertaken more cheaply in rural parts of France. The firm developed a remote word processing service known as Téléscribe, and set up a network of four telecentres, in the Ardennes and Meuse departments. Staff numbers rapidly grew, so that by 1995 Telergos employed 95 people.
Since then, the company has faced a decline in this original core work, and has diversified by offering conference organising and transcription services and claims handling and other back-office work for insurance companies. The firm has also developed networks of home-based workers to complement the telecentres.
With operations in two countries, Telergos would seem an ideal example of the way in which telework internationalises work and removes national barriers. In practice, however, this isn't quite the way it works. Although Denis Haulin periodically visits Barnard Castle, in day-to-day work there is no direct contact between the two businesses. There is also little sharing of work, though the UK Telergos has once or twice undertaken conference transcription work for the French Telergos where the conference language being used was English. Both arms of the business use the same logo, but neither has yet got round to putting in links to the other on their web sites: www.telergos.co.uk offers the English story, www.telergos.com the French.
Following on Telergos's experiences in France, the UK Telergos has recently begun experimenting with the use of home-based workers.
"It's very early days yet. We're trialling it with a few people locally, who live in the town, and it seems to be going quite well, " says Michele Smith. The home-workers, who operate as self-employed contractors, are required to have their own e-mail facilities, but Telergos makes its own bespoke software available to them to use on their PCs. Typically, the original sound files are forwarded to them and the finished word processed file returned to Telergos also by e-mail, for proof reading.
"We're trialling home-working with two particular clients, where the work is very straightforward and doesn't require formatting. We have come to the conclusion that more complex work is more difficult to give to home-workers," Michele Smith says.
The home-workers came in to Telergos's unit for two weeks of initial training, before returning to work from home. Michele Smith says that having workers operating from home gives the company more options in how it schedules work and copes with unexpected work peaks. "For example, if at 5 o'clock we get a sudden influx of work, we might be able to use the home-workers to do it overnight," she says. "It's not cheaper to use home-workers, but it is more flexible."
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