How can banks provide a quiet, secure environment for customer service reps who work from home? Xerox has been developing a unique solution: video-equipped pod enclosures.

The copier company turned business processing outsourcer partnered with vPod Solutions Limited in London to create the pods and has been testing the concept for roughly a year and a half. They look like wardrobes or standalone closets with louvered doors.

Now, Xerox is ready to run a pod pilot with some of its at-home customer care representatives.

"We are looking to have 50 in production within the next few months," says RG Conlee, senior vice president and chief innovation officer of Xerox Services.

The BPO provider plans to gradually fund more units after working out any kinks discovered with the initial trial.

The point of the pods is to offer at-home agents a private space that provides reduced background noise and better security for the brands employees are representing — which is certainty top of mind for Xerox's bank clients that outsource their calls about password resets, among other account maintenance requests.

For such clients, a pod is a welcome alternative to an employee leaving work documents on a kitchen table.

Xerox can build further security into the pods by using the door sensors to actively monitor and make sure they're shut when an agent is handling calls that contain personally identifiable information.

And the pods, which use telephony services from Cisco, will let the at-home agent videoconference with his boss. There's a wardrobe implication for this: pajamas are no longer okay. "You have to dress up — at least from the waist up," Conlee jokes.

The structures are also designed to make working at home more attractive to some individuals and offset attrition rates for Xerox, Conlee says. The space could appeal to a parent with young children, for example.

To be sure, some employees will have no need for a pod: some people already have offices in their homes or lack the real estate to house such equipment. In other words, the pods will not be in all agents' places.

Xerox plans to offer an incentive to entice employees to test out the pods as well as seek out volunteers.

"It's not a short path to get something like this done," says Conlee. There are regulations to comply with, such as laws spelled out by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that are overseen by the Department of Labor. Xerox also worked with its internal environmental health and safety unit to help make sure it aligned with the federal government's guidelines on such items as ergonomics. And there was — and continues to be — a dialogue around the right design, one that best suits employees who have little exposure to the concept.

The pods for at-home workers are a departure from what vPod, Xerox's partner, typically sells to businesses. Companies have put vPods in public spaces to serve as videoconferencing hubs for their remote agents. In this application, vPod competes with Diebold and NCR — both of which sell video teller software and hardware — in the United States.

Already, Xerox has tested a handful of pods at its call centers. In these tests, Xerox has heard criticisms ranging from the smell caused by newer materials used to the limited size of the area in the pod. "People's personal space is very private to them," Conlee says. "They have a lot of input."

Conlee estimates the tests have already led to four or five major redesigns of the pods. The version soon coming out is about the size of a first-class airline seat space, he estimates.

"The next step is toward long-term usability," he says.

Xerox plans to seek out a customer to pilot the new offering next year and Conlee anticipates a high-tech company will become its first pod tester.

Xerox doesn't share the price; however, Conlee says a pod costs less than a cubicle, even when factoring in attrition and added installation expenses. And it's just one more option that clients can purchase from the BPO; offshore facilities or workers operating from an actual call center office are other options available.

"It's a cool thing," Conlee says. "We are constantly looking for new things in the innovation space. Some things make it, some things don't."