The ability to work from home continues to top the list of desired benefits for employees seeking better work-life balance. Over the past five to 10 years, technology has enabled the growth of remote work across sectors and professions, and research suggests that nearly one-third of the U.S. workforce will be working remotely by 2025 (The Guardian Workplace Benefits Study: Fifth Annual, 2017).
Within the contact center world specifically, remote work programs have been on the upswing as more companies recognize the value they offer in attracting and retaining top talent. Michele Rowan estimates that about 80% of U.S. contact centers are currently using remote work in some capacity. A portion of that amount, around 20%, she says, includes centers that take an ad hoc approach to remote work; for instance, using it for disaster recovery or to retain senior agents who relocate and can no longer work onsite. In centers with active work-at-home programs, most are using it as a staffing strategy but not their dominant one, she says, adding that the sweet spot for remote-work programs seems to be around 30% of the agent population. Rowan is considered one of the industry’s foremost experts on remote work. As president of Customer Contact Strategies, she has helped more than 800 clients design, scale and improve their work-at-home programs, and conducts conferences and workshops on remote-working strategies/best practices for contact centers and support functions.
Transition to Work-at-Home Is Much Smoother for Agents
A decade ago, sending someone home to work usually involved a long, painstaking process. Companies were careful to select tenured agents who then had to go through a lengthy testing phase to ensure that they could set up their computers, access the corporate network and systems, and troubleshoot basic technology issues on their own.
These days, cloud-based integrated contact center solutions remove the setup burden. Widespread use of digital technology in their personal lives also means that employees generally require little to no training to use communication and collaboration tools, many of which mirror popular consumer social media applications.
It has never been easier to connect with remote agents via technology. “Companies are using enterprise social networks to communicate and collaborate regardless of where people sit,” says Rowan. “The low cost and ease of collaboration and co-browsing for sharing knowledge and experience, face-to-face meetings and training have made the transition to work-at-home much smoother.”
Still a Few Bumps in the Road
Even though remote staff uses the same tools and systems as onsite staff, there can still be pushback from supervisors who are uncomfortable with the idea of managing workers they can’t see. While frontline management resistance was more common 10 years ago, “that population continues to shrink with the maturity of the model,” says Rowan.
These days resistance to work-from-home programs is more likely to come from a senior executive or board member who doubts their employees’ ability to be productive away from the office, or who believes that collaboration can only take place face to face—as in the case of IBM’s recent move to send remote marketing and engineering teams back to the office. Many times, the decision to deny remote-work opportunities or to pull the plug on an existing program is made by a top executive from a generation that is accustomed to a more traditional workplace, without regard for the needs or desires of their younger, more tech-savvy workforce.
Admittedly, though, remote workers can begin to feel isolated from their colleagues, and many miss the social banter of the workplace. It is, in fact, the most commonly mentioned drawback among those who participate in work-at-home programs. Communication and collaboration tools can keep remote agents in the loop on work-related issues, but supervisors must take proactive steps to pull remote agents into the workplace culture.
For Kim Houlne, CEO of customer experience and contact center outsourcing firm Working Solutions, which employs more than 110,000 remote agents, creating a sense of community with a shared purpose and goals is both a top challenge and a top priority. “At Working Solutions, we foster a caring culture, where everyone’s contribution is valued,” she says. “Emotional intelligence, that feeling of belonging, goes a long way in pulling together a remote, on-demand workforce.”
Staying Connected to Work-at-Home Staff
How do you strengthen the connection with remote agents so they feel that they’re a part of the team, contact center and company?
“I learned early on that direct lines of communication are vital for business success,” says Houlne. “How can a company perform well if the people doing the work don’t know what’s expected of them? Anything less is nonsensical. For agents, we created the Vyne website. There, they can check their schedules, keep track of their work on client programs and interact with peers and management. Again, it comes down to building that sense of community. Being in it together, wherever agents work.”
While Houlne describes the Vyne site as both an anchor and a gathering point, “there is no substitute for being one-on-one in person,” she says. “Throughout the year, other leaders and I meet with groups of agents across the country. Whether it’s a handful of agents or dozens, it doesn’t matter. We sit down for a meal, share stories, discuss problems and figure out how to work better remotely. Just because we’re far apart doesn’t mean we have to be distant.”
Providing tools that offer quick and easy access for communicating with colleagues can greatly improve remote-worker engagement, says Rowan. The key, she says, is being able to connect in one click as easy as it is in the office (e.g., via an enterprise social network).
Regular face-to-face interactions via video are also essential. “We are social organizations, so being able to share knowledge, experience and socialize, and then see each other, are baseline requirements.”
Team meetings offer an excellent opportunity to incorporate video tools. “Reps care much more about seeing their colleagues than they do their supervisor,” Rowan says. “Make sure that you use a video platform where all attendees can be visible onscreen.” Using video for frequent one-on-one interactions between agent and supervisor also helps to create meaningful connections and dialogue.
Attracting and Retaining Top Talent
The nature of contact center work (transactional) and the tools available for real-time monitoring and tracking performance make the work-at-home model an attractive option for centers. And the benefits to both agents and the business are clear. Customer Contact Strategies’ “2017 Remote Working Benchmarking Survey” found that centers offering work-at-home experienced 30% lower turnover than those that didn’t—and they also reported a 25% drop in absenteeism. Add to that reduced real estate costs, higher productivity and the ability to more closely align staff to contact volume, and it’s a win-win-win for companies.
The opportunity to improve quality of life for agents also helps centers to attract higher quality candidates. “We see work-at-home programs explode in markets with long commute times,” says Rowan. “People don’t want to spend two hours commuting to and from work. Time is precious, and commuting is expensive. Companies need to offer telecommuting to reach the caliber of people that they want. Those that don’t are limiting their talent pool.”