The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is, according to the United Nations, at and over 50% in industrialized countries alone, meaning organizations are missing out on a significant source of strong talent and overlooking a great opportunity to help people attain independence and achieve their goals.
For nearly 50 years, my company, Peckham, has been providing job training opportunities for persons with significant disabilities and other barriers to employment. As a vocational rehabilitation organization (i.e., job training and job prep), some of our clients work as Peckham employees for years, even decades, while others may leave to work for other employers.
We compete for U.S. federal government set-aside contracts to help people with disabilities become financially independent and self-sufficient. Team members (clients) are Peckham employees working in Peckham facilities if/when working in-person. If working remotely, they are working from home.
We prepare our clients to work either at Peckham, or with other employers, including the federal government. Almost 50% of our staff (those of us who service our clients) began working for us as clients. We also train other employers how to work with our clients by assessing available jobs and advising what accommodations or customization may prove most productive.
It’s our mission to help others become more self-sufficient and to feel like positive contributors to the communities they live and work in.
We have seen the magic that happens when you hire individuals with disabilities. It opens the door to an incredibly rich and diverse workforce, not only in ability but also in ethnicity and culture, gender, and sexual orientation, language, education, socio-economic status, and more.
Our world is incredibly diverse, yet so many workplaces aren’t. It’s time for all businesses to better empower, educate, and advocate for those who have been underrepresented in society.
How Our Contact Centers Work
Our service level agreements (SLAs) have metrics and requirements that we must meet, just like everyone else. We don’t get any special dispensation or have reduced performance standards.
Our workforce values excellence (we have a 94% customer satisfaction rate compared to the 83.5% industry average), we take pride in our work, and we want to keep customers happy.
To ensure that the training programs within our contact center division are unique to the contract and to the individual, we implement several strategies when training new employees because we know everyone’s learning needs are unique. This includes accommodating different styles of learning: reading material, watching others, or hands-on demonstration.
We provide what’s needed so everyone can be successful in their roles. Some agents also require specialized tools to perform their job duties. These include Calabrio’s screen-reading software that’s optimized for JAWS to support agents with visual impairments as well as other speech-to-text tools.
Other agents may need sit/stand desks, specialized headsets and computer mice, flexible schedule accommodations due to medical or personal barriers, or assistance arranging transportation.
When I began working at Peckham, I saw a contact center agent with a visual impairment who was using a screen reader. They were listening in their right ear to the computer and listening to a customer in their left ear – something the customer didn’t even know was happening because the agent’s interaction with the customer was seamless.
There are unique ways of working with those with disabilities, which can require developing creative solutions. It’s what we do at Peckham every day, and it reshapes one’s understanding of people’s capabilities.
Ultimately, we want to meet people where they are in their career journey, so we work with them to figure out the best path forward. Knowing some are joining the workforce for the first time, beyond teaching technical skills for the specific role, we also work to teach softer skills to ensure successful, long-term employment.
How Our Contact Centers Have Evolved
Contact centers are always changing. Failure to evolve – failure to be agile and flexible – will quickly impact customer satisfaction, employee satisfaction, and the bottom line.
During and after the COVID-19 pandemic, we uncovered new ways we could improve our operations—ways that were not easily noticeable before the pandemic.
- Training opportunities. Some of our contracts had to pause processes during the pandemic, which created a surge of calls, long wait times, and frustrated callers and agents.
- After utilizing Calabrio analytics to discover elongated holds and silence times, we implemented training on how to handle objectionable calls so that we could better address some unseen barriers (i.e., anxiety and stress) that agents were experiencing as a result. This helped the situation at the time but is valuable training for future operations, and for our agents’ wellbeing.
- Remote enablement. We had some agents working remotely before 2020, but during and after the pandemic, we expanded remote work exponentially.
- This gave us the opportunity to prove to some of our clients that having remote agents was a benefit, not a drawback, and it also allowed us to remove hurdles that some of our agents were experiencing, such as transportation challenges and scheduling issues.
- Refined best practices. We started to re-evaluate our practices and processes to find areas of improvement to increase efficiency. While we always looked for those opportunities, the pandemic pushed us to dig deeper and adjust more quickly.
- Refining our best practices to make them even more efficient resulted in agents expressing less anxiety and stress during some of our busiest times. It also allowed more time for coaching, training, and development of skills.
The last few years strengthened our commitment to our mission and improved our ability to remove more barriers others thought were immoveable.
We intentionally challenge ourselves to fit the job to the individual, not the individual to the job—and we do so by asking ourselves every day what we can do to enable a person’s individual success. “We can’t,” “we won’t,” and “that’s not possible” are not part of our vernacular.
Improving the Technologies
At Peckham we are always looking for ways to improve our processes. In 2019 we were looking for a call recording system that could offer speech analytics capabilities as well as a way to improve quality by utilizing artificial intelligence (AI) and/or machine learning (ML) to evaluate more contacts.
We wanted to see if these new technologies would be useful in developing better targeted training and coaching opportunities. After vetting several companies, we ultimately decided that Calabrio would be a perfect match for our business and contact center needs.
Since then, Calabrio has worked with us to develop new features and functionality to allow us to continue to exceed the expectations of both our clients as well as our staff and agents.
Shortly after we partnered with Calabrio, they acquired Teleopti – which we were still utilizing for our workforce management (WFM) platform. We could not have been happier. This took our current WFM platform and incorporated the additional features of Calabrio speech analytics, QA, reporting, and more.
While these systems still operate separately, we are working towards using the entire Calabrio suite under one platform.
Each of our contact centers leverage Calabrio’s collaborative suite differently. Some incorporate call recording and WFM capabilities, while others utilize the full functionality of Calabrio’s workforce performance software, including analytics.
How We Approach Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)
We are inherently different. DEI initiatives are part of who we are; it’s what makes us special—but we’re never sitting idle with our intentions. We still have room to grow, just like any other organization.
We’re currently focusing on ensuring we have diversity at all levels of the organization, including the top level of our leadership – not just entry and mid-level positions. We’re working on creating clear career pathways and ensuring talent development is in place for everyone.
When we continue to learn and understand what makes each other tick, that’s when creativity and innovation thrive.
Equity, to us, is about customizing what someone needs in the workplace. That’s our specialty, given we work with people with differing abilities.
Inclusion is often the hardest part to get right with DEI initiatives. It’s about achieving a feeling of belonging for everyone; it’s something we all want, no matter what group or setting we’re in. On the other hand, feeling like an outsider can cause a lot of stress and preoccupy our minds, hindering us from being our best selves at home and in the workplace.
To ensure growth, and evolving how we think about approaching DEI initiatives, we are working with a human behavior consultant who also focuses on neuroscience and is helping us better understand our patterns, namely:
- Why we think and behave in the way we do.
- Why our brains default in certain ways and write predetermined scripts (that may or may not be good for us) based on what we’ve learned, heard, or been enculturated with over time.
We’re learning more about unconscious bias so that we can be more mindful of how we’re processing information and, ideally, allow us and our workforce to start seeing things with a different lens or filter to help us grow.
When we continue to learn and understand what makes each other tick, that’s when creativity and innovation thrive. It’s like a domino effect—when you start to accommodate one person’s needs, forcing you to think in new ways and adapt for all different situations, you inevitably develop new solutions and new ways of approaching problems that end up better supporting everyone.