When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, employers scrambled to equip their employees with protective gear, install barriers, and require staff, visitors, and customers to mask up and sanitize for essential in-person tasks and interactions.
Alternatively, employers had to send and fit their employees to work-from-home (WFH) and perform tasks and interact with others by phone, online, and video. Like for customer service, support, sales, and billing through the contact center. Consequently terms like “remote working” and “Zoom calls” entered the popular lexicon.
Fast forward to today’s New Normal. The fading—but not the disappearance-- of COVID-19, combined with an unsettled economy, have empowered employers to try and bring their employees back into the offices i.e., return-to-office (RTO), including on-premise contact centers.
But employees who found they liked WFH have pushed back: also empowered by staffing shortages including and notably in the contact center. As a result, the term “hybrid working” has also entered the lexicon in balancing employer and employee wishes.
So is WFH, particularly and specifically for the contact center, part of this New Normal? And if so, how, how much, and what is the future of this way of working? To find out we interviewed Michele Rowan, a leading WFH expert and President, Work From Home Alliance.
Q. What has been happening with WFH in the New Normal? Why are employers moving away from it? Which sectors are going back to offices and which others are staying home?
A: I don’t really think that decisions (currently) are being driven by industry or sector. I think it’s much more personal than that. I think decisions around where people should work (currently) are being driven around things like the ability to reduce facilities footprint, for one.
“...employee preferences will win out (whatever they are), but we will have to let the dust settle to determine that.”
Companies that are currently locked into a lot of office space are wanting to fill it. When those leases expire in a few years, I think we will see some different decisions and actions for those specific businesses.
Another current driver is executive level preference versus employee preference.
- Some leaders really like working in the office full-time and want to see their employees all or most of the time.
- Some leaders have a fear of employees disengaging without consistent weekly in-person interactions.
- And some leaders are not trusting that their employees are as productive when remote versus in-office.
In the end, I believe that employee preferences will win out (whatever they are), but we will have to let the dust settle to determine that.
Q. Past disasters that sent employees to WFH, such as the 9/11/01 terror attacks and the SARS outbreak, had them eventually back in the offices. Is what happened with the COVID-19 pandemic different WFH-wise and if so, how and why?
A: Those emergencies were brief compared to what we just went through, for starters. Second, technology that is used in contact centers is so mature now (versus then), as evidenced by the success of WFH during the pandemic.
These are big distinctions. I don’t know anybody who thinks full-time RTO is going to happen, do you? And contact centers (due to the nature of the work and pay levels) have even higher pickup with WFH than enterprise workers.
Q. Let’s dive deeper into RTO. Are there sound reasons for it for companies in general and/or for contact centers: even though WFH appears to have worked and employees by and large prefer it?
Or is this a case of employers making that move for no other reason than control? Given WFH’s popularity are there any consequences like higher turnover, inability to find adequate staff?
A: What the pandemic proved to us in the contact center environment was that WFH works, and it works well. And it’s safe. And it’s preferred by many for most or all of their work weeks.
I recently spoke at a conference where the audience was contact center leaders, and for most in the room who were shifting from full-time WFH over to hybrid, the decision was not the employees’ choice – it was “management preference.”
Do I think there will be consequences? Yes, I do. People that prefer full-time WFH have plenty of options to find that, and they will migrate to those places where their preferences are seen and heard.
In the contact center environment, we have the ability to offer many options to our employees. Like in-office, WFH, hybrid, part-time, full-time, split-shifts, self-scheduling, on-demand staffing, trades, and giveaways.
Does it cost more to offer all of these things? Yes, of course it does. But companies that offer lots of options will attract the best talent and keep them longer. Full stop.
Q. Describe what happened when employers implemented WFH in short order during the pandemic. What were the challenges and how were they overcome?
A: The health emergency resulted in a “grab and go” on equipment, network connectivity was all over the board, hard phones went out the window almost entirely, and companies scrambled to centralize and standardize communications in digital social channels.
Now companies are settling into long-term approaches for all of these things, based on experiences and learnings that they had during the pandemic.
Still on the top of the list are how to best onboard and train people remotely, how to inspire and maintain connection (on a personal/social level and professional level) and how to extend and maintain company culture. There are lots of great tools to be customized by organizations, based on their own values and priorities.
But I do believe there is one big learning from the 2.5 years people spent at home. And that is that some amount of in-person interaction is a big bonus. It’s not required, but it’s a plus – for many.
I don’t believe people have to trudge to the office two-three days per week to accomplish this. I think what works best is giving people options on where they primarily sit for work and follow that with quarterly social gatherings for recognition and reward, celebrations, holidays, etc.
And it’s best if in-person gatherings are optional – again underscoring and catering to the wide variety of preferences employees have when it comes to the level and frequency of in person interactions that they participate in.
Hybrid Working Models
Hybrid working can mean employees/agents WFH part of the week/in-office part of the week, or some employees/agents WFH full-time, others on the same team working in-office full-time.
So which model is being adopted more, particularly in the contact center, and why?
Michele Rowan: “I like to see all of these options offered to employees, because they all work, and cast the widest net in terms of talent acquisition and long-term employee satisfaction.
“In the contact center environment, I am predominantly seeing a big pickup of full-on WFH. Following that is a big trend in requiring people to come in-office two-three days per week, and then home for the balance of the week.
“Why? Because someone up the food chain likes it that way – it’s not employee preferences driving it.”
Q. Outline what has been happening with WFH in the contact center. I understand that contact centers were early pre-pandemic adopters. What occurred when the pandemic struck and what has been occurring since and why? Have contact centers joined RTO? Or are they staying at home?
A: Currently I’m seeing around 40% of contact centers sticking with full-time WFH, and the balance are focused on a mix or variety of options or fixed hybrid.
Again, this is not being driven by employee preferences. Rather it’s being driven by executive leadership. I think we will see more contact center teams moving to full-time WFH, because that’s what most contact center employees want.
“...some amount of in-person interaction is a big bonus...it’s a plus for many.” —Michele Rowan
The contact center environment is an insane pace. It is hectic. And most positions are more entry-level, at the lower end of the pay scale. So that’s why the pickup on full-time WFH has been so high.
Contact center employees want to save the commute time and expense and put it towards things that are more meaningful to them. And when they get a break from back-to-back phone calls or chats, they want to take that break in their own homes versus the office.
Q. What new best practices, technologies were developed and implemented during the pandemic and since then that make WFH more functional for companies in general and/or for contact centers specifically?
A: The pace of artificial intelligence (AI) use accelerated as a result of the pandemic. The explosion of chat rooms and channels has been super-beneficial, along with use of video and gamification. Meanwhile, learning management systems (LMS) and knowledge management systems (KMS) are improving quickly as a result of the demand.
Q. The issues of data/IT security and employee privacy i.e., employers monitoring them, including using cameras, have arisen with WFH. Please discuss.
A: I’m not seeing data security as a problem any longer. There are many options available to lock down data and computer functions, and effectively monitor activity on an ongoing basis. I don’t know of any material data breaches as a result of remote work that are recent, and I ask that question often.
As to the last part of your question, certainly companies need to be transparent about surveillance (what they are doing and why) and employees need to trust the intentions.
If trust has been built and is maintained, then monitoring for ISP problems, or systems navigation is not a problem for most employees. It’s similar to recording 100% of calls. That was threatening to some when first introduced, but now is the norm.
WFH GOING FORWARD
Q. What is the future of WFH in general and in the contact center?
A: The future is so bright!
- Talent pools are expanding to (now) include disabled people with mobility issues who found it difficult to get into an office on a regular basis.
- Carbon footprint is being reduced significantly by zeroing out the commute (or cutting it).
- Employees get an average of seven hours per week back that they were spending on useless and costly travel to work. People are getting more quality time with their friends and family and finding it easier to balance work and personal life. Employees are getting more choices, and that makes people happy :)
Finally, given the speed to market mentality in the contact center world, I think we’ll see things go from “pretty good” to “incredible” in terms of the overall quality of WFH and hybrid work environments, and I think we’ll see it pretty dang quickly!
Gig Working and WFH
Gig/independent-contractor WFH, which has long been used in the contact center, has been receiving increased attention from businesses seeking to cut costs. But it has been targeted by lawmakers seeking to curb alleged abuses of worker rights, such as with the Biden Administration’s proposed new regulations.
Are companies moving away from in-office but also employee WFH to gig WFH? If so, why? If not, why not?
Michele Rowan: “One of the things we saw coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic was a strong desire for a percentage of the labor market to move into independent income status. Whether that be people starting their own businesses or shifting to contract work versus the typical employee role for companies like Upwork.
“The U.S. Census Bureau is reporting a record-setting 20% increase in 2021 in new business applications. So how is that showing up in the contact center environment? Well, staffing (using the standard employee model) has been extremely difficult. It only got better after significant pay adjustments were implemented. And retention is still challenging for most.
“I’m seeing companies outsource more because they need a plan they can count on. And given the expansion of contract employment and independent working, gig working is now within reasonable sight for many contact center organizations. It’s not so much the cost savings that’s generating the interest – it is the growing talent pools in the gig economy that are so appealing.
Q. What are your recommendations for contact centers seeking to maintain, grow, and/or evolve their use of WFH?
A: I have three very specific recommendations:
1. Offer as many options to employees as you possibly can in terms of where they work, types of schedules available, changing of schedules, etc. Catering to employee preferences will deliver the best talent, and drive ESAT, CSAT, and retention.
Does it cost more to offer a variety of workplace options and types of schedules? Yes. But the returns in ESAT and retention will net cost savings, and they can and should be measured.
“Employees get an average of seven hours per week back that they were spending on useless and costly travel to work.”
2. Shift most of your recruiting budget away from job boards, and into your employee referral program. Your employees have vast social networks, and the ability to deliver many, many qualified applicants right to your doorstep. It’s fine to pay out the bonus after 90 days to protect your investment – your employees will get that.
The bottom line is this – would you rather give your employees 10, 20, or 30,000 dollars per year for bringing in new hires, or do you just want to give this money to Indeed? Imagine the goodwill you’ll generate amongst your employees when you make the change. And measure the impact in your cost per applicant, cost per hire. It’s going to be a better story, guaranteed.
3. Include routers as part of your equipment kit if you are in fact, furnishing equipment. Routers get slow after just 12 months and can be a total drain on processing after 18 months. They are low cost. Just buy them and give them to your employees.