5 Tips to Effectively Manage Your At-Home Workforce

5 Tips to Effectively Manage Your At-Home Workforce

/ People, , People management, COVID-19
5 Tips to Effectively Manage Your At-Home Workforce

How to build a strong foundation for a successful at-home model.

Doing more with less—it’s a constant pressure in business. As contact center leaders, we’re always looking for ways to reduce costs while still providing optimal customer experiences. Cost control is just one major advantage of the at-home workforce model.

According to Global Workplace Analytics, the average at-home employee saves his or her company more than $11,000 a year. A recent report from Inc. magazine found that at-home workers are 20% more productive than other workers. Organizations are catching on to these financial realities, and as a result 3.7 million American employees (2.5% of the workforce) now work from their homes (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014).

A new model is always a little scary. Contact center leaders understand the normal challenges of managing employees, but the unique requirements of a remote workforce may be unfamiliar to them. This article won’t answer every at-home management question or issue, but our experience in this work model has revealed five risk areas that require your attention. Whether you’re just starting up, hitting your stride or running into snags, getting these five foundations right will save you both money and headaches.

1. Have the Right Technology

The advent of VOIP and cloud-based technology revolutionized call distribution platforms and enabled explosive growth in the remote agent workforce. Growth brought a flood of new tech providers with varying capabilities, costs and quality. Finding the right technological tools for your organization right off the bat will prevent months or years of issues.

To effectively support calls from agents’ homes, you first must have the technology to route the call over the Internet or, in some rare cases, over landlines. Most major contact center platforms have remote worker capability, but if yours does not, there are countless systems that will meet your needs at a reasonable cost per agent.

Where to start? We recommend beginning your platform research by looking at three well-known at-home industry suppliers. All three have good reputations, rank high on features, scalability, stability and affordability.

  • Interactive Intelligence (pureCloud)
  • InContact
  • Genesys

Have you found a technological partner who deserves a shoutout? I’m interested in hearing your reviews on other suppliers for at-home workforces (email: [email protected] ).

2. Increase your Communication

In my consulting business, I conduct employee engagement programs at many contact centers. I consistently see lower scores on communication than the leadership expects. One thing I always ask my clients is to take a minute to look back on their previous jobs, before they were managers. Did they feel that they knew what was happening in the organization and how it affected them? Or did they feel in the dark a lot of the time? And, finally, did it make them more engaged or less?

I have learned that no matter how strong you think your communication channels are, continual improvement actions for communication are essential to grow and succeed.

In a virtual contact center, the effects of poor communication are exponentially higher. Remember you can’t simply tape a memo to the breakroom door. You can’t hang streamers and balloons to celebrate your remote employees’ achievement, or frame and hang their certificates of excellence where everyone can see them. You must think virtually to find new ways to communicate relevant news, to publicly praise good performance, and to explain changes that affect the agents and the roles they play. If you want them to feel like they’re a part of the organization from a remote distance, they must have a clear and visible place in the customer experience, mission and vision of the company.

How can a virtual contact center create a virtual communication model? The short answer is the company intranet. Each agent should start his or her day on a shared computer home page where news, goals, communications and knowledge are available. It may require some technology budget to set up a single sign-on platform and intranet program. If the budget is not available, a shared site can be created nearly for free by using WordPress or another free or low-cost blogging tool. Anyone with basic Web and social media skills should be able to build a simple password-protected website for your team. You’ll be able to upload information (including PDFs) and even create a simple dashboard to track important metrics on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. It will require a commitment on management’s part to ensure that the tool is useful and is kept up to date with fresh, relevant content, but it won’t demand a major IT footprint.

You can’t rely on technological solutions for all communications. It’s essential that you establish mandatory daily communication between agents and supervisors. With at-home agents, daily connection with a supervisor is critical. If you let at-home agents work all day with no interaction with leadership, they can feel even more distanced and less engaged.

Finally, make sure that your remote workforce has access to an up-to-date knowledgebase. Logically, this would exist in the intranet, but it could also be printed and bound as a hard-copy manual. It must include all the resources agents need to serve customers, as well as all the information they need as an employee of your company, including policies, benefits and contact information for various departments within your organization. Take the time to make it easy to navigate, whether it’s printed, digital or both.

3. Create a Community

Digital and phone communications are only the beginning. In an at-home setting, the agents cannot simply ask a question of the person next to them or raise their hand to get a supervisor to walk over. Establish processes and tools so that agents can communicate with each other as well as leadership. Agents need to be part of a community with shared goals, mission and vision. Managers can push objectives from the top down to employees, but it’s the community that generates excitement, camaraderie—even competition—and makes it all real and reachable.

If you can’t be face to face, most people stay connected these days through instant messaging (IM), chat or texting. These one-on-one/group chat tools are essential for escalations, questions and collaboration on best practices. Additionally, these tools help to build relationships and rapport among co-workers. Remember, contact center agents are social people, and providing them a path for social interaction is critical for retention and employee satisfaction.

Costs for instant messaging business tools vary, but you’ll typically see a server setup charge in the $300 to $500 range, and license for agents around $12 to $18 per user. Some of the better-known tech tools offering real-time manager-to-agent and agent-to-agent communication are:

  • Skype
  • Yahoo! Messenger
  • Google+ Hangouts
  • Openfire/Spark
  • Bopup
  • BigAnt Instant Messenger

Don’t forget the occasional face-to-face communication. I try to plan training and other events in the major areas where I recruited my at-home agents so that our teams can be in one room together and connect socially.

4. Measure for Success

Contact centers are one of the most measured departments in most companies. Metrics can be applied as easily to remote workers as to in-center agents, including first-contact resolution, availability/adherence, utilization, average handle time and customer satisfaction. Any other metric you have in place can and should be measured.

With at-home agents, measurement tools may become even more important in the management of your contact center. You can’t simply “walk the floor” in a virtual contact center, so the technology tools and monitoring features have to become your new “walking the floor.”

5. Provide more Feedback and Coaching

I recommend that frontline supervisors spend time listening in on at-home agent calls throughout the day—not just for required quality assurance goals, but to effectively understand the unique strengths and areas of improvement for each of their agents. In these “walking the floor” exercises, I suggest the supervisors listen in on calls for a minute or two and move to the next agent, so they get a snapshot of the tone of the center and activity.

Frequent listening also provides them with real-time information on call trends that may need to be shared with stakeholders or senior leadership. It is important to note, “walking the floor” is not to be combined with quality assurance, although it can provide a great base for the actual quality assurance score carding in the future.

Supervisors cannot do it alone, so have QA, senior leadership and stakeholders also conduct “walking the floor” exercises throughout the week. In our call centers, I require our QA team, training team and stakeholders to listen in on calls throughout the day.

In addition, ask stakeholders, other departments and leadership staff to conduct secret shopper calls to determine gaps in performance and programs, to increase the customer satisfaction, reduce effort and improve customer experience.

Finally, use the information you hear and measure to provide regular and consistent feedback and coaching to your at-home agents. These agents—even more than your in-house agents—rely on you to help them succeed. Working at home, alone for long periods of time, unable to hear how their co-workers do things, at-home agents are vulnerable. While they may actually produce more, it’s also easier for them to fall into bad habits or lose sight of their goals. Be that voice in their ear that helps them know when they’re doing the right thing and when they’re missing an opportunity. You, the agent and your business will benefit.

A New Thought Pattern

At-home agents require a new thought pattern for management. Don’t miss this opportunity to build something phenomenal. Take risks, create new programs, ask the agents—often—what it is that they need to help them provide exceptional service, and engage people from other departments to help improve the processes. These extra, creative, interactive efforts will pay off as you achieve your goals and, ultimately, satisfy your customers.

Eric Berg

Eric Berg

Eric Berg is a 25-year veteran of the contact center industry, running multiple brick-and-mortar as well as virtual agent centers across the U.S. Eric is founder of the Midwest Contact Center Association and currently provides consulting in the areas of outsourcing selection, recruitment, applicant intake process, employee retention, creating at-home agent programs and creating a culture of success. 

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