When Becky Gourlay answers her phone, she sounds like she's in her office on Pearl Street. Her customers may never realize the long-time McInnis Insurance Agency employee is almost 3,000 miles away.
Gourlay, who has been with McInnis Insurance nearly 30 years, moved to British Columbia in 2008 when she married. She thought her work relationship with the company was over, but thanks to modern technology, a computer "guru" and a flexible boss, that was not the case.
"One day Becky informed me that she was marrying Jim and moving to Vancouver," Philip McInnis said. "I gave serious consideration to shooting him but was afraid that it would affect her attitude at work. I had no choice but to reconcile myself to the fact that she was going to be gone."
Gourlay said she expected to quit work, but Russell Snider, who worked with McInnis' computer systems told her she could work from Canada, if McInnis was game.
"A couple of weeks down the road, Becky and Russell, an outstanding and very computer-savvy former employee of ours, came in to see me," McInnis said. "They both agreed that most of what Becky was doing for us could be done remotely, logging in to our system over the Internet, and using her own phone – Canada has very cheap rates for dialing the lower 48."
McInnis said he was more than happy to give it a try.
"Neither one of us ever realized how much I could do up here effortlessly and how little it would affect the business," Gourlay said. "I write just as much business as I did from my desk in Minden, I haven't lost any business that I take care of since I've been here."
McInnis admits that in the beginning, the telephone part was a little awkward at times. "Sometimes people would see a strange number on the Caller ID and not even answer the phone," he said. "But several months later we happened to install a new VoIP phone system (Voice over Internet Protocol), where the phone system runs over the Internet, and that solved that problem. It's been incredible.
"If you call our office and ask to speak to her, there is no way in the world that you would know she isn't sitting right outside my office, where she was all those years," he continued. "I can dial her extension and talk to her instantly. And if she calls your number, McInnis shows up on the Caller ID."
Gourlay said the only time the situation gets a little awkward is when a customer wants to "drop by the office" and see her or fax some information. She turns to her teammates in Minden when that happens.
"I don't have the ability to fax, but my co-workers in Minden take care of that for me," she said. "A customer's paperwork can be faxed to the Minden office where they will scan the information and email it to me."
So far, she said, nothing has been insurmountable – not a move from Vancouver to the country where until recently the Internet service was marginal, nor the time difference from Canada to the Deep South.
"It's two hours earlier here," Gourlay said from her home office in Burns Lake. "I work from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. which is the same as 8 to 5 Central time. I get up at 4:30 a.m. and take my lunch hour at 10 in the morning Minden time."
McInnis said he and some of his employees are envious of Gourlay these days.
"She has far fewer interruptions," he pointed out. "She's also been saved twice now from looking for new employment due to a move. And, although she claims that she's still following our dress code, I have my doubts."
"I can and do work in my pajamas," Gourlay admitted. "I get ready for the day during my lunch hour."
She also admits it takes discipline to work from home.
"It helps that I have a dedicated room that's an office," she said. "You walk in and it looks like an office. It has all the equipment, computer, scanner, printers, etc. Many businesses are going paperless, and I am basically paperless. I can see
everything you used to go to the file cabinet and see."
"I was originally concerned that she might miss the office environment while cooped up in her home all day, but I couldn't have been more wrong," McInnis said. "To have this situation work as well as possible in a small business like ours, you need an employee on the remote end who is absolutely trustworthy and loyal to your company. And staff members on-site who are also loyal and unselfish and willing to help make it work. We're very fortunate that the members of our McInnis Insurance team fall into that category."