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The Secret to Success with Virtual Leadership

The contact center industry is such a perfect match for virtual agents. Remote workers offer the advantage of a flexible work force to meet client demands, and remote workers are often more engaged due to a better work/life balance.

From the perspective of the agent, what are the main advantages of working remotely?

Traditionally, the primary real estate for call centers--especially larger centers-- is located in expensive metropolitan areas. This can mean employees face longer travel times, higher commuting expenses, and an inability to be flexible based on the restrictions of public transportation schedules. The high cost of real estate and rent can make living close to work sometimes impossible, while others choose the quieter life of suburbia locations to raise their families.

When it comes to a remote workforce, the biggest advantage to the employer is Time Availability, and for the employee it is Time Savings.

The benefits for both sides are clear, so why haven’t more contact centers gotten on board with remote agents?

The ongoing debate centers around expected agent performance/productivity. The reality is there are usually much less distractions for remote workers, and these days we have every measure available in the industry to know exactly what our agents are doing at any given time. Agents who work from home are also much more flexible to work alternative shift schedules, are rarely late for work, are more relaxed in general and are not in a rush to finish that last call in order to catch their express bus.

We’ve touched on the many benefits, but before implementing a remote work program in your contact center, a few fundamental questions must be answered to ensure success.

1. Is Working Virtually for everyone?
2. How do you truly measure the Operational Success?
3. How do you Prepare Your Leadership to adapt to the new requirements of a Virtual workforce?

Is working virtually for everyone?

The answer is … of course not. Average to low performers in the office will most likely continue to be average to low performers virtually, unless they have the motivation for change. Coaching effectiveness is really the key; having leaders support their individual employees to either improve their skills or help them to regain their will to succeed.

Fundamentally, everyone can adapt to variations in working environments; however, we cannot take for granted that this is a simple transition for everyone. In most cases, there are personality traits that do make some individuals more successful and adaptable than others in a virtual work environment. Ensuring adaptation and training to new technologies, and protocol for internet or power outages, are the basics. Equally, if not more important, is the training and support on the soft skills and creative interactive tools and techniques that ensure employees do not feel or become isolated.

You need to establish a solid foundation of interaction and communication that continues to encourage teamwork and protect the human touch. Without the ability to observe physical body language, leaders require more training related to picking up on and reacting to other cues not necessarily observable. Simple events such as weekly virtual coffee breaks/conference calls can make a world of difference in helping remote agents feel connected.

How do you truly measure the Operational Success?

Within the call center industry we have the most robust ability to measure almost every operational indicator, so it is important to monitor any deviations or drastic changes in those measures. Focusing on the few key attributes that are linked to why your virtual work environment was established is also fundamental. Employee engagement surveys (which are usually an annual event) should include a field for employee to identify their work environment so you can review virtual vs. office agent trends.

Tied to your shareholder and financial reports, if you are moving people home you should include reductions (if not elimination of) office space requirements, which will result in substantial expense savings. You need to have the courage to let go of your real estate, and as your employees and leaders transition home, a solid ability to monitor individual expenses to ensure policy adherence and control expenses.

Lastly, if you have happier employees based on the added flexibility, you should see increased productivity, which should result in noticeable improvements to your service levels and overall customer satisfaction levels.

How do you prepare Your Leadership to adapt to the new requirements of a Virtual workforce?

As our phone agents and support staff move virtual, so do many of our team leaders and supervisors. The leadership dynamic and skills can be drastically different. Typically, people leaders thrive on personal connection and the ability to read body language for emotional cues to support employees. Luckily, there are many great communication tools – including email, chat and SMS texting--for keeping in touch. In order to foster relationships, remember to make it fun and not all about business. Introduce something as simple as Friday Highlights, a weekly personal message from the leader to the team that recaps the week. Encourage employees to contribute content to the newsletter, too. As long as it is consistently delivered every week, this can give your team something to look forward to.

Instant Message group sessions can be another great employee and team connection point. Individual teams can connect in the morning via a group chat, and as they need help throughout the day, post on the forum where any team member is able to respond. Introduce a variety of activities to keep the team engaged, like having each team member take turns leading a fun quiz, game or casual social event. Link these activities to each employee’s leadership and development goals.

Looking for another way to build culture and morale amongst virtual agents? Offices frequently ‘decorate’ for holiday events and hold contests for the best decorations. Don’t be afraid to continue the tradition in a new way! Have each individual employee decorate their home office and send in photos, and award prizes for the best submissions. A picture collage can be created and distributed across to all team members.

In closing, there are so many creative activities that can be easily implemented to help virtual teams reap the same benefits of working side by side in an office. The utilization of a growing volume of collaborative tools, web based training and social media applications can keep your teams connected, which is a vital part of ensuring the success of a virtual work force. As executives and leaders in the call center industry we need to modify and change our perceptions of social media being a detractor and focus on how we can truly leverage this world of new technology to be constructive and healthy in our ever growing virtual work environments.

What advice do you have for successfully establishing and maintain virtual work environments? Share your advice in the comments below.