In October 2021 I read that according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), cigarette sales were up for the first time in twenty years. My initial thought was that this was due to Work from Home (WFH). When I began to look into it, I found that in addition to increased cigarette sales, so were alcohol sales and admissions to substance abuse rehab centers. Could working from home actually cause substance abuse?
There appears to be an increased impact on mental health associated with remote workers due to feelings of isolation and loneliness. Demands on mental health providers have also grown. The American Psychological Association (APA) conducted an online survey of 1,000 remote workers between March 26 and April 5, 2021. The majority of employees working from home said they experienced negative mental health impacts and difficulty getting away from work at the end of the day. Nearly two-thirds of people working from home felt isolated or lonely at least sometimes and 17% all the time.
I found myself asking, “Are you sure about WFH?” The question reminded me of something many may not recall. It was the iconic PC Pause...the safety net of early Word™ users to protect and help them not lose precious work. I am not sure when PC Pause went away, but we may want to pause a moment and look at WFH beyond its benefits.
Work from Home is not new; it has been around for decades. What is new are the numbers of people and the types of jobs that now are done from home. When asked, large numbers of workers want WFH to continue beyond the end of the pandemic.
When Contact Centers went remote due to COVID-19, a kind of urgent energy flowed, making something scary kind of exciting. This yielded a great affirmation of Work from Home. In many cases productivity increased. The Contact Center was hailed for its amazing work as demand soared for many industries and “pivot” became the operative word.
The early wave of WFH enthusiasm and disaster recovery models has led us to a point where serious discussions are taking place across the country regarding the decision to stay remote, return to premise, or adopt a hybrid model. From my perspective, this analysis must include taking a step back to conduct an in-depth review of three WFH factors: benefits, trade-offs, and risks.
WFH has many vocal supporters that enthusiastically promote all its benefits, of which there are many. Employees cite greater job satisfaction, less commuting, and more hours at home (improving the quality of family and leisure time). There is also less automobile use, more protection of the environment, savings on clothing and dining out, and the ability to live pretty much anywhere. The list is long and familiar.
Employers also cite benefits. These include higher productivity, lower operational costs, recruitment and retention advantages, operational and organizational resilience, and reduced environmental impact.
Employers also cite benefits. These include higher productivity, lower operational costs, recruitment and retention advantages, operational and organizational resilience, and reduced environmental impact. WFH for many Contact Centers is still new; many organizations struggle to make a long-term plan. But the plan can be complete only if time is taken to explore WFH beyond the benefits. I would like to glance into several trade-offs and risks of Work from Home models.
According to Study.com, “a trade-off occurs when we make a choice that benefits us, but to acquire that benefit, we also have to give up something of value.” We make trade-offs every day, for example, “Shall I pay for valet parking or use the economy lot?” If I am in a hurry I may trade off the additional cost of valet service for the benefit of saving time.
The same happens in managing the Contact Center, particularly these days. Negative trade-offs for the employer are loss of organizational culture, complications in managing a remote workforce, and difficulty adapting remote work policies to varied business and worker needs.
Contact Center “organizational culture and the way it supports communication and innovation are as vital to corporate health as is productivity. There is ample evidence illustrating that strong company culture and highly engaged workforces are loyal, happier, healthier, and more productive. In remote-work settings, it can be difficult to establish a strong broadly-shared culture and norms that permeate organizational activities.”
The cultural component of the Contact Center has traditionally been imparted to new team members via premise-based onboarding and training. There are several trade-offs to consider when onboarding new hires remotely. Many managers are concerned about new staff starting out as remote agents without having the relationships that help drive culture into the job experience.
Microsoft published a study, The Effects of Remote Work on Collaboration Among Information Workers. Results indicated “that firm-wide remote work caused the collaboration network of workers to become more static and siloed, with fewer bridges between disparate parts.” The findings suggest that those folks that started out on site and then went remote maintained and strengthened existing relationships while relationships with new staff weakened.
For many, Work from Home began as a temporary solution to a public health crisis and was undertaken with few clear policies. Prior to the pandemic, WFH programs had a long list of conditions that must be met in multiple categories: technology and security, available and appropriate space, policies requiring children (under 13 for many) to be cared for out of the home. The 2020 WFH burst had few if any actual policies; answering the call was good enough. If that meant you had a baby on your lap, so be it. That is now over and the introduction of policies has caused challenges across the board.
Trade-offs must be made to create a way to cultivate culture in the WFH model. Historically, Contact Centers employed many elements and activities to engage staff. These included theme days, food events, and competitions. But let’s face it. It is no fun to have Hawaiian shirt day when no one can see each other. It might feel a little silly sitting in your home office all dressed for summer in the dead of winter. Food sharing is another premise-based Contact Center norm that has been traded off for WFH. While culture means more than fun dress days and potluck lunches, camaraderie is a part of culture that management now must recreate.
Remote engagement has presented challenges for many, especially those whose businesses are complex and whose staffing model is not meeting demand. Agents in these difficult situations are likely pummeled with calls, have little or no additional training, and lack peers to help with the emotional distress that accompanies dealing with some callers. As a result, agents can begin to feel isolated and disengaged.
Management must address communication effectiveness as the path to creating a new version of operational culture. Management must address Assist and Escalation, the most important communication need the agents have. In a premised-based Contact Center, there are peers to look to when you have questions or need some emotional support after a difficult call. Supervisors and Team Leads are often seen walking the floor and are easily accessible.
In moving to WFH, this demand has rarely been properly forecasted. Remote work has pulled the curtain back on a very real demand that many are having difficulty fulfilling. New hires need lots of support as they mature into their role; where they go to get it has to be consistent, clear, available, and accurate. There are likely few things more challenging to a new hire than not being able to find help when it is needed. That trade-off often leads to resignations if the gap is not closed.
Clearly there are IT security risks for many companies when it comes to remote work. Workers often use their own PCs; there may also be spotty Wi-Fi, challenges with Internet access and speed, and issues with VPN stability and security. All must be considered. Telecom must also be able to support soft phones and recording systems must be tested. They may have difficulty with voice capture as well as screen capture. Luckily, most of these challenges are being overcome; improvements are made almost daily.
Bigger risks may be health concerns that are emerging as a Work from Home risk. I began this article with the fact that the FTC found cigarette sales up for the first time in twenty years. Erika Sward, Assistant VP of Advocacy for the American Lung Association, called the FTC numbers “very troubling.” She added that the sales increase was probably driven by people who have previously quit smoking but started again during the pandemic. She noted that stress is a primary driver of relapses.
Billy Gifford, CEO of Marlboro cigarette maker Altria, commented during a July 2020 earnings call that “fewer social engagements allow for more tobacco-use occasions.” While many organizations have attempted to ban smoking during working hours, it is purely an honor system unless you decide to put cameras in every home. But any directives will run up against smokers’ rights laws in 29 states!
According to a new study from alcohol.org, one in three Americans drink alcohol while working from home during the current COVID-19 lockdown. Of the 3,000 surveyed, 36% of men and 26% of women said they drink on the clock. Dr. Lawrence Weinstein, Chief Medical Officer of AAC (American Addiction Centers) stated that there is a portion of the population that believes they can get away with alcohol consumption during working hours because they are completely out of sight of supervisors.
Not everyone is sipping Tito’s out of their coffee mug. Many have managed to make WFH a healthy alternative to premise-based work. It is management’s job to stay close and provide the front line with what is needed to be successful. This brings me to what I think is the single biggest risk to WFH. Many managers have no idea how to do this because it is NEW!
“Strategy is about making choices, trade-offs; it’s about deliberately choosing to be different.” —Michael Porter, American Academic and Author
Most organizations I have been working with already have denied investment in training Contact Center leaders at every level. Well, that party is over. It is time to elevate Contact Center leadership skills in all the key areas. At a minimum, Workforce Management (WFM) must be operationally clear on its role and responsibility. The WFM team must PLAN...not spend their time chasing agents around who are 30 seconds late from break.
Grow your team’s skills and professionalism. The Quality program may need a total revamp to put supervisors squarely in the role of coach. They may need lots of education and time scheduled to meet with their remote team members and conduct meaningful coaching conversations. They must not simply be providing “feedback” from a compliance perspective.
Recently, a frontline remote agent told me that their “QA coaching program amounted to about 10 minutes of being told what I’m doing wrong.” And think about it. Are we really still tracking how many times an agent uses a caller’s name? There are calls I’m on where I can literally hear the items on the “QA form” being met, mostly in an awkward manner that does little to build rapport. Let’s make sure in this new world that we move away from ineffective time-consuming coaching sessions and productivity-based performance indicators that create great risk to the retention of talent. And talent is every Contact Center’s most critical success factor.
This is by no means an all-inclusive list of the benefits, trade-offs, and risks of Work from Home. But I hope it will inspire those that are struggling to achieve WFH success to do some serious analysis of your current state and plan to gain control doing what’s best for all concerned.
I look forward to the next one to five years to see what happens. Check your certainty (Are You Sure?) and your readiness to prepare a path to success, whatever the direction.
Stand by as your Contact Center continues to change and evolve!