As COVID-19 restrictions ease, contact center leaders are planning what their future work environment will look like. The hybrid work model, in which agents work at home but come into the center a few times a week, is gaining prominence as a way to meet agents’ demands for more flexibility, better work-life balance and the desire to spend some face time with co-workers and supervisors.
Recent research by meaningful work consulting company 5th Talent revealed that contact centers that shifted to a 100% work-at-home workforce last year are struggling with numerous challenges that threaten the sustainability of the fully remote model.
Some centers have opted to return to an entirely on-site model. But many are finding that the majority of employees are not satisfied with an either/or choice.
Ideally, employees want a mix of work-at-home and an on-site presence. (See “The Hybrid Model Is Only Part of the Solution to the Work-at-Home Dilemma,” by Ted Nardin and Brian Kearney below.) This brings forth another set of challenges for adapting on-site and work-at-home processes for a hybrid model.
An important consideration is how the hybrid work model will impact company culture—the foundation for trust, engagement, teamwork and shared values. For most companies, culture took a hard hit in 2020 amid closures, layoffs and the isolation of suddenly working from home during a pandemic. Many are now in the process of reshaping the culture to align with emerging workplace models.
The Hybrid Model Is Only Part of the Solution to the Work-at-Home Dilemma
By Ted Nardin & Brian Kearney, 5th Talent International
5th Talent International has completed three contact center work-at-home studies since the beginning of the 2020 pandemic. We learned that most employees prefer the hybrid model, which is a mix of splitting their time between their home and the center. Our April 2021 study highlighted that the collective time employees want to spend working at home is 87%. Many who indicated they preferred to work 100% at home also commented that they don’t want to be 100% virtual. They still want in-person access for meeting with their supervisor, team meetings, social events and training. Only 2% of employees wanted to return to the center full time.
The Work at Home Dilemma
During the pandemic, a work at home dilemma arose. The dilemma is that there are challenges to the sustainability of the work-at-home model and the best way to overcome them is to bring everyone back to the center. However, the leading preference of employees is not to return to the center. On the one hand, employees want a social connection to their peers, a good relationship with their supervisor, and the general feeling that their job is worthwhile. On the other, they want to work in their homes isolated from others.
To overcome the dilemma, many companies are moving toward a hybrid model, but this approach alone will only provide limited results over time. As companies implement their “return-to-work” strategies, a hybrid model will provide an initial boost to employee morale and productivity by more successfully connecting people to each other and the company culture. However, in the hybrid approach, companies still have a remote workforce and many of the underlying challenges of the “physical gap” remain.
Our latest study highlighted the importance of supervisor preparedness as the key to bridging the “physical gap” between supervisors and agents. When supervisors received training or guidance in managing remote employees that they rated as “very helpful,” their team had better performance and less fatigue compared to those who rated it as “very poor” or had no training or guidance. If you take away anything from our report, it is that the key to a successful work-at-home program is the supervisor.
The Future of Work
Here are our recommendations for the future of work to overcome the work-at-home dilemma and build a sustainable, effective remote workforce:
- Understand the positive and negative work-at-home experiences of your employees.
- Define your culture and how to effectively extend it remotely, including through your supervisors.
- Develop an effective communication strategy to keep your people engaged and informed.
- Develop your managers and supervisors to overcome the physical gap between them and employees.
- Support supervisors and reduce the amount of effort they are experiencing in the work-at-home model, which could include reducing supervisor-to-agent ratios.
- Enable employees to directly connect with each other in a voice or video channel that is not heavily monitored.
- Utilize a hybrid model to engage employees socially when they visit the office and provide in-person opportunities for supervisors to meet with their people.
- Offer hybrid flexibility to employees by allowing them a choice for how much they work at home and in the center.
- Bring new-hires into the center for orientation, nesting and for part of training.
- Develop a meaningful work management approach—because when agents find their work meaningful, they stay with the company longer, are highly productive and deliver outstanding customer experiences.
About 5th Talent International
We are a service consulting company that has developed a methodology based on the area of research called “Meaningful Work.” Meaningful work is the magic metric for service organizations because when employees have it, they work harder, stay with you longer, deliver outstanding service, and go the extra mile to drive performance. We also developed an Excelling at Home Program, which helps you maintain your culture and create a thriving and sustainable work-at-home model. The program integrates findings from our groundbreaking work-at-home studies and our meaningful work methodology to enable you to transfer success from the contact center to the home.
Ted Nardin is Co-founder and Principal Consultant for 5th Talent International. Over the past three decades, Ted has engaged in original research and invented new methods that help organizations maximize the benefits of people talking to people.
Brian Kearney is Co-founder and Chief Marketing Officer for 5th Talent International. He has more than two decades of experience in the contact center industry helping companies develop a serving culture leading to loyal employees and customers.
Culture Challenges for a Hybrid Work Environment
Traditionally, company culture evolves over time under leadership guidance and through daily interactions and close proximity of employees. But the sudden shift to remote work last year raised several barriers. As the 5th Talent report points out, work-at-home fatigue set in among agents and supervisors, driven mainly by the physical gap that separated remote employees from their supervisors and the company culture.
Replacing daily face-to-face communication, physical presence and personal conversations with virtual tools has helped to maintain workplace connections. However, it also introduced a new challenge: digital fatigue. Digital fatigue is defined as a state of mental exhaustion and disengagement that occurs when people are required to use numerous digital tools and apps concurrently and in an ongoing way.
Yet good or bad, with most people working remotely, it was a shared experience. Under a hybrid model, each employee’s circumstances and work preferences will differ. This will likely contribute to inconsistencies—whether real or perceived—in employees’ work experiences.
The hybrid model introduces several complex issues that will impact the culture:
- Which team members are in the office on which days?
- What is the ratio of on-site to at-home time? Is it the same for everyone?
- How do you maintain a connection to team members who are at home when others are meeting on-site?
- How can supervisors engage employees when some are on-site, and others are remote?
- How—and where—does training occur?
- How do leaders deal with employees’ perceptions of unfairness or exclusion when they’re working at home?
5 Considerations for Creating a Hybrid-Friendly Culture
Changing the companywide mindset about concepts such as proximity, connection and communication is the first step toward reshaping the culture to better align with a hybrid work environment. The following are five practices that will positively change the employee experience, whether your contact center staff is at home or working in a mixed-model center.
Adapt Your Communication: Think Remote-First
Make sure that remote workers do not feel that they are missing out on important events by working at home. While some team members may opt to come into the center for meetings, group activities or training, communication should be conducted virtually if even one employee works remotely.
Vary your communication approaches to keep your team engaged—employ video, phone, chat, email, online message boards and feedback tools (e.g., surveys, online pulse checks). When it comes to virtual meetings, keep it brief, have an agenda (no meetings for the sake of meetings!), and give everyone the opportunity to speak.
Be Intentional about Inclusion
In inclusive cultures, every individual feels respected, valued and supported. To be intentional about inclusion, focus on ways to create an experience for your remote workers that is equal to what your on-site employees are experiencing. Examples include:
- Participating in video celebrations.
- Keeping them informed of discussions and ideas shared at the office.
- Finding ways to reinforce the culture virtually, such as online competitions, virtual meditation, etc.
Supervisors play a crucial role in helping remote workers feel included—reach out just to check-in and see how they’re doing.
Create a Level Playing Field
Remote workers have long complained about being overlooked for opportunities. Job promotions, recognition, prized assignments and developmental opportunities often go to those who are on-site and in sight. Missing out on networking and the ability to create meaningful connections is especially detrimental to younger employees who are just beginning their work careers.
Managers and supervisors must ensure that work-from-home employees are provided with the same opportunities and rewards as those who are on-site and that there is no sense of favoritism based on proximity.
Find Ways to Make Contact More Frequently
Open, frequent communication is the key to engaging work-from-home agents, and it is also critical in a hybrid work environment. A crucial responsibility for frontline leaders is connecting remote agents with the company mission, on-site team members, shared goals and the culture. Frequent check-ins also help supervisors to stay aware of WFH agents’ health and wellness issues should employees begin to experience WFH fatigue or burnout.
Admittedly, increasing the amount of time spent communicating with team members can strain supervisors’ schedules. 5th Talent’s Nardin recommends that contact centers lower the agent-to-supervisor ratio so that supervisors can spend more time supporting individual team members. As he points out, supervisors’ roles have evolved from manager to “life coach” in remote and hybrid work environments.
Be Visible and Accessible
The days of management by walking around and executive walk-throughs may be over, but company leadership can still be visible and accessible for remote and on-site staff.
We all know how isolating remote work can be. Make sure that agents’ scope of communication is not limited to their supervisors and team members. They need to hear from company executives and senior leaders to create a stronger connection to the company culture. Once again, this should occur using a remote-first approach, for instance, via occasional virtual town halls or frequent updates (daily or weekly) via the company messaging platform. Keep in mind that if the leadership team is working on-site and most agents are working at home, it can create a perceived status bias among employees.
The Future of Work Is Employee-Centric
Workers’ priorities have shifted in the past year. Many are now searching for more meaningful work, flexibility and growth opportunities. As employers are discovering, workers are unwilling to return to the way things used to be. It’s time to delve into the wants, needs and experiences of your agents to deliver the type of supportive culture that helps people thrive and succeed.
A Caring Culture Unites Globally Distributed Teams & Employee Experiences
Global sales and marketing solutions provider Televerde has a well-established reputation for a caring, compassionate culture and values like courage, trust and passion for learning. For Jessica Hocking, Vice President of Global Operations, being able to communicate the company’s vision, culture, and values in a way that resonates globally and inside and outside of Televerde’s incarcerated facilities is essential. “We spend quite a bit of time focusing our values and translating those into goals that are applicable at all levels so that we’re driving the same behaviors,” she stresses.
Before the pandemic, just over 60% of Televerde’s operations were on-site within incarcerated facilities, with the rest of the team distributed among offices across the United States and globally. Last year, the company tackled the pandemic crisis head-on and shifted 40% of its workforce to remote within 48 hours.
“Our remote-working environment was spread across many regions in different parts of the world, so our team members’ experiences have been very different,” Hocking explains. For instance, Televerde’s U.K. office has endured a severe lockdown and staff in South America were restricted to their zip codes. Meanwhile, parts of the U.S. were open and not enforcing face masks.
How can you maintain a consistent culture when team members have vastly different experiences?
“We increased the frequency of our global meetings and spent a lot of time talking with our team members to understand what our partners were going through. Not only did this help with their relatability in conversations with clients, but it also helped to expand the empathy and compassion for others and their circumstances,” Hocking says. The restrictions imposed by the pandemic also gave others insights into the everyday experiences of their incarcerated team members, who live daily with restrictions, separation from family and loss of privileges.
After a year and a half of working through the challenges of having some engagement centers that are 100% remote and others that are entirely on-site, Hocking and her team are currently piloting a hybrid model for Televerde’s engagement centers that incorporates the best practices of each.
“Based on numerous factors and preferences, feedback from our staff and performance data, we proposed a hybrid on-site/off-site role where employees can have time on-site with their team to engage in the face-to-face activities that are best-suited for in-person, while also giving people the space to work in whatever environment they are most productive in,” she says. “We are blending the best of both worlds so that we can help our team members to be the most successful version of themselves, and in turn, we can deliver excellence for our clients.”