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How Contact Centers Can Make WFH Sustainable

Working from home

I’ve been involved with contact centers for over 25 years and one thing that I’ve consistently noticed is that they have an incredible ability to respond to changing situations in a rapid and effective manner.

Usually these types of changes are a result of volume fluctuations, high absenteeism, surprise marketing programs, etc. Today contact centers have been challenged with how to create a remote work model (primarily a work from home model) as a result of the outbreak of COVID19.

In many cases, the transition has not been pretty, and there is a lot of “Scotch tape and rubber bands” being used to make this process work. A positive outcome from this transition is that many organizations, some of which have been placing remote work models on the back burner or only using it as a reward system for agents, will see the value of this new model. Some of the benefits that come from a work from home model include access to a broader workforce, more flexible scheduling, lower absenteeism/attrition, improved productivity, and more.

Once the dust settles, organizations will need to take a step back to assure that they can take advantage of this new model and leverage its benefits in a sustainable long term manner.

There are a number of specific areas that need to be addressed to create a successful sustainable model. Many of the recommendations that follow apply to a remote work model along with an in-office model. The challenge is that contact centers often operate on autopilot in non-crisis times, and it takes a significant event to force leadership to step back and evaluate current practices.

New Hire Process

Not all individuals have the desire or are suited to work in a remote environment. When hiring agents to work in a remote environment, an organization must be able to identify candidates who can succeed in a remote environment and set their expectations properly.

Steps for transitioning the new hire process include:

  • Revise job descriptions to clearly define roles/responsibilities and to identify the attributes required of the candidate (e.g. ability to work alone, self-starter, etc.).
  • Utilize job simulation during the interview process to assure that candidates fully understand the specifics of the job. This can include a simulation of handling customer phone inquiries.
  • Share the communication processes that the organization has established and use them during the interview process to assure the candidate is comfortable communicating via those channels.
  • Develop a hiring decision matrix specific to remote agents that focus on specific attributes that are required.
  • Provide a trial period for office workers transferring to a remote environment and, if possible, offer office jobs to those individuals who don’t succeed in the remote environment and can still contribute successfully to the organization.
  • Maintain a pipeline of candidates for when the pandemic is over, and volumes return to normal levels and/or agents leave for other jobs.

Training Process*

Many contact centers still utilize instructor-led training in a classroom environment for both new hires and ongoing training. In a remote environment, it may not be easy to gather a group of individuals in a single location for training and therefore the delivery of training must change to support a remote work model.

Steps for transitioning the training process include:

  • Provide delivery of training via a variety of methods, including instructor-led, self-paced, collaboration, role playing, etc.
  • Adjust training content and timing of delivery to reduce the risk of overwhelming trainees with too much information in too short a time period.
  • Perform periodic assessments of trainee’s progress analyzing which training methods are more effective for specific types of content.
  • Bring people together on a regular basis via various communication methods. 

Employee Communication/Engagement

Assuring effective employee communication/engagement may require the most significant focused effort. In a remote environment it is no longer possible to walk up and down the aisles to see how people are doing or to take a quick water break and talk about the latest episode of a TV show or ask how a family member is doing.

Communicating with a remote workforce is not the way most contact centers are used to operating. To be successful in establishing a corporate culture, driving employee engagement, and providing an outstanding customer experience, organizations must change how they communicate with their employees from both a channel and cadence perspective. Communicating with employees attempts to achieve a number of goals, including providing supervisor coaching/feedback, responding to agent questions, promoting teamwork, and more.

Steps for creating a successful supervisor coaching/feedback model include:

  • Hire supervisors who have previous experience working in and leading a remote environment.
  • Assure supervisors are comfortable communicating via a variety of channels of communication.
  • Assure that supervisors have regularly scheduled meetings, utilizing various channels, with their teams, including daily check-ins with agents, weekly team meetings, communication meetings to share key business information, etc.

Steps for creating a support process for responding to agent questions include:

  • Establish rules based on urgency and complexity on how and to whom to communicate.
  • Provide schedules of who is available during specific hours and the best way to reach that individual.
  • Maintain an accurate and easily accessible knowledge database to minimize the need for agents to reach out to others.

Steps for promoting teamwork include:

  • Hold a variety of virtual meetings, including brown bag lunches, focus groups, and town halls to bring people together and share information.
  • Provide opportunities for agents to participate in friendly competition and gamification activities.
  • Provide tools to support peer communication during lunches/breaks.

Work Environment

Establishing a work environment, both physical and technical, that lends itself to supporting a remote agent is critical to assure that the remote agent has the environment and tools to perform their job successfully.

Steps that may be taken to support to create a highly functional physical environment include:

  • Create a specific work area that is separated from the general living area, is distraction free, and is not cluttered with irrelevant materials.
  • Post a schedule of when it is not appropriate to be disturbed.
  • Minimize the use of wireless technology to reduce potential points of failure.
  • Manage usage of technology within the household to minimize capacity issues.

Steps that may be taken to create a technology environment to enable remote agent success include:

  • Utilize cloud-based systems where available.
  • Reduce/eliminate bandwidth issues (this may require turning off some technologies).
  • Assure that agents have all required equipment and subsidize where necessary (e.g. multiple desktop screens).
  • Increase IT support to resolve agent hardware/software issues.
  • Support a variety of communications channels (voice, email, video, messaging, etc.) and provide training on how to utilize these channels.

Finally, working alone can be challenging for many individuals, and the establishment of informal communications along with the development of routines are critical to address this challenge.

Steps to address the feeling of being alone include:

  • Remain visible to others by reaching out to peers on an ad hoc basis during slower times, having virtual breaks/meals with others, and logging on early to chat with others prior to scheduled meetings.
  • Develop routines by getting dressed for work each day, arriving in the remote office before beginning a shift, dealing with personal items only during breaks, developing start-of-day and end-of-day routines.
  • Set boundaries between work and play and leave office at the end of the workday.
Contact centers consistently respond to changing situations in a rapid and effective manner, and they are coming through to addressing the challenges raised by the coronavirus. The challenge is that many of the changes that have been implemented have been rushed to get the remote model up and running.

Once contact centers move out of this “emergency mode”, they will need to step back and evaluate what works and what needs to be adjusted to assure that the remote model has long-term sustainability.