The at-home agent workforce movement is gaining momentum.
I wish I was, homeward bound
Home, where my phone is ringing
Home, where my texts are pinging
Home, where my computer’s waiting Silently for me.
(With apologies to Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel)
Back in 1964, a depressed and homesick Paul Simon penned a song called “Homeward Bound” as he was doing a tour of club gigs in England and missing his girlfriend, Kathy Chitty, who was back home in Greenwich Village. He wrote most of the lyrics in train stations while waiting for trains that were taking him to his engagements across the U.K. The song was released as a single in 1966 and went to No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song did even better when it was released in Canada and The Netherlands.
I know this is ancient history for most of you young ’uns, but some of you might recognize the song from a few years ago when it was covered by the cast of the TV show “Glee,” or when Willie Nelson sang it in 2003 at a musical celebration of his 70th birthday. The song has been covered by dozens of artists over the years and, coincidentally, Ms. Chitty made her way into a number of other Simon & Garfunkel songs in years subsequent, including their 1969 hit, “The Boxer.”
In the contact center industry, “Homeward Bound” could be a theme for this year. Not the song, I mean the number of agents that are homeward bound as work-at-home agents.
Having customer service agents work from a home office is not a new concept. In fact, I remember when JetBlue established their contact center in 2000 with nearly every agent working from home. At that time, setting up someone to work at home was no easy task. Consider that broadband ubiquity was nothing like it is today, and each agent had to have a workstation hard-wired into his or her home office with proprietary software to connect the home office to the company office in the Salt Lake City area.
Today, sending contact center agents home to work is a strong and growing trend in the industry. According to 2016 research from my company, Saddletree Research, that was conducted in conjunction with the National Association of Call Centers (NACC), a not-for-profit industry membership group located at Middle Tennessee State University, about 45% of U.S. contact centers have some percentage of their agent workforce working from a home office. While some companies like JetBlue were fully committed to the home-agent concept from the beginning, Figure 1 shows that most companies are just starting to dip their toes into the work-at-home pool.
Besides asking what percentage of their agent workforce was working from home, we also tried to get a feel for how successful the existing at-home agents are by asking our survey respondents what their plans are for their home-agent workforce in 2017. As illustrated in the graph in Figure 2, which illustrates expected changes in the number of at-home workers during this year, the at-home agent strategy seems to be an overwhelming success for 97% of survey respondents. Only 3% indicated that they’re going to reduce the number of their at-home agents while 66% stated that they expect to increase their at-home agent population in 2017.
To try to gain a better understanding behind the success of at-home agent programs in 2017, I turned to Michele Rowan for answers. Michele is president and CEO of Customer Contact Strategies in Dallas (www.customercontactstrategies.com), which she founded in 2009. Michele is one of the industry’s leading experts on remote-working business models and is the host of several conferences and workshops each year that focus on the creation and management of an at-home contact center agent workforce.
Prior to founding Customer Contact Strategies, Michele spent 12 years as VP of Performance Management with Hilton Worldwide where she was charged with creating a home-based contact center workforce model to accommodate customers who spoke various languages across the European continent. Once the European at-home agent was in place, Michele was tasked with expanding the work-at-home model in two U.S. cities. Within 18 months, she had transitioned over 1,000 brick-and-mortar positions to home-based agents. Given her experience in overseeing successful home-agent programs, I asked her what the attraction is in having agents work from home.
Michele answered, “There’s a proven, well-established track record of improvements that are realized with work-at-home programs in contact centers and support functions. It includes increased applicant flow of 200%–400%, turnover reduction of 25%–50%, 10%–15% increased productivity, and 25%–40% reduction in absenteeism. These are usual and customary results that my clients see, and sometimes they’re even better, depending on specific markets and deployment strategies.”
At the end of 2016 and into early 2017, I conducted several interviews with select NACC members regarding the biggest challenge they believed they faced in 2017. The top answer was, overwhelmingly, employee engagement and addressing employee turnover issues. Among the potential solutions to this challenge mentioned by nearly all interview respondents was either establishing or expanding an at-home agent program.
According to Michele Rowan, “Employees who work from home save $7,000–$9,000 per year in after-tax dollars by eliminating or reducing commute-related expenses (gasoline, auto wear and tear, parking, meals and business clothing). In addition, employees save an average of 10–12 hours per week in readying/commuting time, which is turning out to be as important as the hard-dollar savings itself. The millennial demographic views work-at-home as an added benefit, and a compelling driver to join a company.”
While many of our interview participants understood the benefits of establishing an at-home agent strategy, the challenge remained regarding how to go about getting started. Once again, I asked Michele to weigh in.
“The first step is to define your vision and objectives. What it is you are trying to accomplish with home reps? Next, understanding what others are doing, why, how and the results they are seeing is critical (as we would do for any significant business project). Methods for accomplishing this include conducting one-on-one benchmarking with companies of interest for a period of three to six months, if you have the time, or (the more efficient approach) attending a work-at-home conference where groups gather to exchange best practices, experiences and insights for two days. Customer Contact Strategies has two Work-at-Home Conferences this year—one in Denver, July 19th–20th; and the second in Laguna Beach, Calif., November 15th–16th. The final step is to reset/affirm your vision and objectives (post benchmarking), and develop your strategy, ensuring that it aligns exclusively with company culture. No two programs are alike!”
Given the results of our most recent survey of customer service professionals, combined with the insights gained during our year-end interviews, there’s no doubt that at-home agents are no longer the novelty that they were in 2000. The at-home agent workforce is now mainstream in the global contact center industry and will likely dominate the industry before the end of this decade. Considering the momentum behind the at-home agent workforce movement, it’s no longer a matter of if, but when some or all of your agent workforce will be homeward bound.