It’s such an interesting time for contact centers! The pandemic forced an immediate, full-on transition to work from home (WFH) for most around the globe, and for contact centers the net results proved to be overwhelmingly positive. Many organizations are now choosing to continue with WFH as a long-term strategy, and that’s prompting some serious revision and refresh to many workflows, guidelines and policies, technologies, and in some cases – even team structures.
Work from Home Alliance and Contact Center Pipeline partnered to survey contact center leaders about their hybrid and work from home experiences. Participants include leaders from financial services (22%), consumer products/retail (19%), healthcare (14%), education/non-profit/government (12%), professional services (11%), insurance (7%), travel (6%), BPO (5%), and utilities/telecom (4%).
Before the pandemic, most participants reported just one quarter or less of their contact center populations working from home on a full-time basis. As a result of the health emergency, the shift was nearly 100% to work from home. And the shift was swift, with companies bundling together whatever equipment they could find to get people set up for home-based working – within just a few short weeks. The only people remaining on site were business critical/health and safety roles.
96% of respondents share that work from home during the pandemic netted satisfactory or better results overall. More importantly, 64% reported WFH proved to be either very good or excellent! We attribute this to 1) the maturity of technology in the contact center environment (people are viewed as “ports” by the ACD, regardless of where they sit – either in office or at home), and also to the highly transactional nature of roles. Contact centers have had (and maintained) terrific visibility of production and employee output. While most contact centers certainly took big hits to service levels, the visibility of output (AHT, hold time, handle time, occupancy) was seamless, as dismal as it may have been at times.
62% of respondents shared they will be using the hybrid model for contact center employees. 32% are adopting full-schedule work from home for their employees. While the mechanics and logistics of work from home proved out solidly during the health emergency, many leaders continue to question their ability to educate and connect employees with their brand and cultural values – without being co-located. And it’s true – there is material work that needs to be done to orchestrate emotional, social, and brand connection for new hires that won’t be co-locating.
The sweet spot is to re-align employee preferences with company culture and values, and try (really hard) to put executive preferences off to the side.
Many companies are knee-deep in figuring out how to get good at this with upgrades to hiring, onboarding and training touchpoints. Others are taking the easier route and co-locating new hires again for at least a couple of days per month. The caution on this route, however, is that many of these new hires may be reluctant to commute, when there are so many other jobs that don’t require it. We’ll have to watch this closely. The sweet spot is to re-align employee preferences with company culture and values, and try (really hard) to put executive preferences off to the side. Pre-pandemic executive preferences no longer fit in this mix.
One of the biggest shifts as a result of the pandemic is the fact that most companies are expanding beyond the pure “hub and spoke” model to larger radii and in many cases, expanding to some selected new markets to recruit. Staffing challenges triggered the move, but only after equipment and technology connectivity proved to be so solid and steady during COVID. Generally, companies that have saturated existing areas are researching and targeting 1-3 new markets to hire in, with some very large employers (e.g. BPOs) expanding to dozens of states within the US.
Only 7% of respondents are asking supervisors to work full time in office. The balance of respondents are using the hybrid approach for supervisors or they are using full time work from home, most leaving the choice to the leaders themselves.
As previously mentioned, technology investments are required to effectively connect people that are remote. We need to rethink how onboarding and training will work, how we effectively expose people to company values and culture, how people can easily share knowledge and experience throughout the workday and how people will socialize, when in person interactions are limited.
Companies are rethinking their tech support helpdesks, and making self-care products and services readily available to their employees. Big investments are being made in automating recognition/reward and contests/promotions (mostly through gamification platforms that do both). Fully virtual new hire training is a material piece of work, as are virtual job simulations and assessment tools.
TIME TO REVIEW TECHNOLOGY INFRASTRUCTURE
While a global pandemic may have foisted Work-From-Home (WFH) on contact centers, it is likely to remain a permanent fixture in the industry. Our annual Contact Center Challenges and Priorities Survey revealed that 83% of companies plan to support fully or hybrid WFH operations going forward. A recent 5th Talent Survey tells us that only 2% of workers want to be in the center all the time. Given challenges in recruiting and retaining front line employees, employee preferences argue strongly for a WFH option.
Contact centers performed admirably in their rapid transition to the WFH model. Nonetheless, it’s time to step up the technology infrastructure and support to make sure that recruiting, hiring, training, coaching, and engagement can function at peak efficiency.
The center and its prospective employees would both benefit from a hiring process designed to yield a good match. Regular use of a good analytics tool provides insights into the ideal employee and informs the screening process. Online tools are available to conduct assessments, and videos can provide a window into a “day in the life” to help candidates get a feel for the work environment. Centers might even consider using remote sessions to allow for shadowing or walk-throughs.
The onboarding process relies upon an effective technology delivery and setup process. Other than “gig workers,” new employees should receive company-funded equipment and support that meets the following standards:
- High quality noise cancelling headsets
- Dual monitors (or widescreen monitor)
- PC/Desktops configured by IT that are ready to use
- Video camera
- Network and Connectivity
- High-speed internet
- Desktop connected to router (not WIFI)
- Wireless hotspot for back-up internet access
- Security & IT
- VPN access to systems/apps
- Multi-factor authentication (MFA)
- Dedicated technical support (WFH help desk with fast SLAs)
- Routine desktop performance testing
- Collaboration and Connection
- Instant messaging (e.g., Teams, Slack) for agent assistance
- Video capability for training, coaching, and meetings
- Virtual training classroom
The training environment must match the production environment to allow employees to gain familiarity and confidence with the systems and process. A combination of real-time training (with every trainee fully present) can be interleaved with modules delivered by a Learning Management System (LMS).
The following tools help agents succeed in any environment but are crucial for WFH:
- Knowledge Management with strong search and well structured, trustworthy information
- Process/ workflow and scripting tools to aid in compliance
- Analytics for real-time feedback or guidance
- Key metrics across channels
- Quality Monitoring to provide the internal perspective
- Voice of the Customer to provide the external perspective
- Analytics to find root causes and define actions
- Balanced scorecards with aligned accountabilities
- Motivation through rewards and recognition (or gamification)
- Scorecards and Dashboards to provide feedback on performance (compared to targets, peers)
- Desktop communications (e.g., messaging, email, intranet/portal, broadcast messages, barge in) to inform and collaborate
- Coaching/ Developing
- Coaching Tools to trigger and track sessions, define focus, and show progress
- eLearning to reinforce coaching with targeted lessons
- Ongoing Training/ Learning
- eLearning to deliver updates and new training (e.g., processes, systems, products, policies)
- LMS to trigger and track training, test, and report results
90% of respondents reported that turnover of work from home employees is the same or lower than turnover of in-office employees, which is very compelling and should give employers confidence in building out their long term WFH strategy.
Most survey participants advised that flexibility with scheduling, hiring and employee retention are the biggest benefits of WFH, which makes sense given the depth and scope of staffing challenges during the pandemic.
Productivity and labor efficiencies from split shifts, part-time shifts and on-demand staffing are being realized and leveraged, making WFH and flexible scheduling a win-win for both employers and employees alike.
Offering home-based positions is a competitive advantage, and a lifestyle choice that many of today’s applicants are seeking. Productivity and labor efficiencies from split shifts, part-time shifts and on-demand staffing are being realized and leveraged, making WFH and flexible scheduling a win-win for both employers and employees alike.
30% of respondents reported that remote supervision was the biggest challenge with their WFH program, followed by engagement (20%) and onboarding (12%). To me, the keys to comprehensive remote supervision include a) real time visibility of production along with the ability/bandwidth to proactively reach out to employees with guidance b) engaging and inspiring leadership c) frequent, speedy interaction and support. In this new post pandemic era, companies are replacing the monthly grind of KPI reviews with more meaningful conversations around employee experience and customer experience. The numbers on the scorecard are only referred to as they are needed, but they are no longer “the” conversation.
Companies are also getting serious about automating their recognition and reward activities, along with contests and promotions. This is critical in an environment where employees are more isolated, and new ways of connection and socialization are taking place. Automating contests and promotions helps even your (less creative) supervisors produce fun, timely activities with the same brilliant flair that your best leaders turn out. It levels the playing field across your leader population, and gives them back a lot of valuable time.
Not every budgetary line item is lowered with going remote, just the one that matters.
Finally, onboarding for most companies is enjoying a much-needed overhaul. More leadership interaction in early days, smaller (virtual) training classes, extended support throughout the first 60 days are proving out good results. Does it cost more? Yes. That’s why we use zero-based budgeting annually. Not every budgetary line item is lowered with going remote, just the one that matters.
TIME TO REVIEW NEW HIRE TRAINING
WFH new hire training needs to include activities that increase employee engagement. That means deliberately designing activities to create bonds between new hires. For example, choose pairs of new hires to complete an exercise or role play together. Or use creative icebreakers and energizers to help new hires feel connected.
Bonds also need to be built between new hire agents and their future Team Leaders. To help with that engagement, Team Leaders should be invited to occasionally participate in training. They can act as coaches during role plays. Or participate in a group discussion about a particular customer scenario. The key is creating deliberate opportunities for new hires to interact with each other and their future leaders during virtual training.
Another training challenge is handling hands-on product training. Imagine an electronics company where agents physically handled and troubleshooted products onsite, as part of their new hire training. How can you replicate that when new hires are WFH? A high-tech example is doing a 3D virtual simulation. A simpler method may involve couriering a “loaner basket” of used/refurbished products to the agent’s home. A third, but less popular method is requiring new hires to come into the office for a day or two of hands-on training. However, many employees chose WFH because they do not want to come into an office or are geographically too far away to travel there.