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Adaptable Best Practices to Manage Work Arrangements Whether You’re Onsite, Remote, or Hybrid

I speak with contact center leaders across the US every week, and it’s clear most contact centers have settled into the work arrangement they plan to maintain for a while:  

  • "We’ve put COVID behind us. We’re back to business as usual – in the office."
  • "Our workforce has shifted and we’re going to stick with work from home."
  • "Our employees love working at home, but we rely on activities that need to take place in person, so we’ve implemented a hybrid strategy."

And it seems most organizations are pretty happy with where they are. In 2023, “where employees work” fell off almost every executive "Top 10 Priorities” list for the first time in three years. I assume this means companies are more than eager to move on from the uncertainty and back-and-forth discussions that dominated the pandemic years.

For most of us, it’s felt good to focus on strategic priorities, rebuilding our workforce and planning for the future. But we haven’t gone back to some idyllic past. Our workforce is stressed and tired. Employee expectations and demands have shifted. And we aren’t serving the same customers or the same people we were three years ago. 

These conversations got me thinking. How should we interpret the most recent data about where employees are working so we can establish an adaptable set of best practices? How do we know our work arrangements are working for us and when we should adjust? How do we stay competitive in the market for employees, while meeting key business objectives? After some research into industry trends, I created four adaptable best practices companies can use to make sure their work arrangements are working for them.  

Create a Compelling Case for Deviating from Trends

There are data that reflect work arrangement trends and these can be helpful to determine if you want to align with or deviate from trends. CNN summarized the most recent large-scale Pew Research and Bureau of Labor Statistics studies, and helps reveal what we can know with certainty: 

  • Hybrid is here to stay. The Pew Research Center found 41% of workers with jobs that can be done remotely work a hybrid schedule (+6% over last year). The number of in-office days varies with 59% at home three or more days each week. 
  • Fully remote jobs are becoming less common. 35% of employees worked remotely in 2023, a sharp 20% decrease since the height of the pandemic peak in 2020. 

If we compare the most recent contact center-specific research with the 2023 data, we find fewer contact centers are fully remote (23%), more are hybrid (60%) and fewer are onsite (17% of contact center employees compared with 24% of all workers who can do their jobs remotely). (2022 Challenges and Priorities Survey: A Triple Whammy of Challenges!).

Of course, you only need to know the trends, you don’t have to follow them.  A contact center might acknowledge the hybrid trend and say, “You know what? That doesn’t align with our culture or our desired work environment. We believe there’s value in working in the same location for the networking, career pathing, communication, and collaboration benefits. We believe we have a recruiting approach and a work environment that will allow us to find and retain qualified, engaged employees who value these things and will work happily in our office. We are delivering on our promises by creating space and structure for the in-office benefits we’ve promised. We prioritize gathering employee feedback, in the form of annual employee satisfaction surveys, quarterly pulse surveys, skip level and employee focus groups, to ensure our employees continue to remain on board with this approach.” 

Whew! This sounds like a lot of work. Can’t we just tell employees they need to work in the office to remain employed? Take it or leave it? Maybe.  That largely depends on the next best practice... 

Validate Your Work Arrangements Will Support Staffing Needs

Many – maybe even most – organizations would have preferred employees returned to the office after the pandemic, back to business as usual, ready to make up for lost time. Many made plans to do just that and found there were other employers more than happy to scoop up employees with the promise of remote or hybrid work. 

There is evidence that workers with a choice – often the most desirable or skilled workers – are digging into remote work, which WILL decrease your hiring pool if you aren’t offering remote or hybrid options. Researchers estimate fully remote work has stabilized at 13% and hybrid at 30%, while McKinsey’s 2022 Opportunity Survey reveals 87% of workers want flexible remote or hybrid work.

For companies that struggle with staffing and who want employees back in the office, this isn’t great news, and frequently has the effect of shifting the decision toward increasing remote days. Your hiring proposition (including reputation and culture, pay and benefits, career and growth opportunities), geographic location, transportation/commuting burdens, employee skill, knowledge, experience requirements, and hiring competition, along with internal factors such as turnover, growth, and even time to proficiency, will substantially impact whether you can meet your hiring targets with what you’re offering candidates. 

Offer Flexibility, in Whatever Form You Can

As the workforce has evolved over the last decade, research increasingly reveals flexibility – control over where and when works gets done -  has become a top employee satisfier, valued as much as traditional benefits. A 2022 study shows flexibility as the 3rd most common motivator for seeking a new job, above predictable hours and scheduling. 

Many of us can’t offer employees the freedom to work when they want, and in the contact center industry flexibility may be in short supply when we’re chasing service level interval by interval, struggling with peak season volume, and hustling to fill new hire classes.  

That’s why I encourage leaders, regardless of work arrangements, to expand their thinking about flexibility beyond just remote/hybrid/onsite work arrangements and really listen to what employees say. Here’s a sample from a recent focus group which represents the type of flexibility employees value:  

  • Day-off requests are granted easily as long as I have a positive PTO balance. 
  • As long as I stay within a reasonably generous adherence target, I’m not hassled when I’m delayed in the morning or late from break. 
  • My manager understands I have a life I need to attend to. 
  • I’m not penalized by short staffing or high workloads. I didn’t cause that, and it’s unfair to hold me accountable for fixing it when I’m within my PTO balance and adhering to my schedule. 
  • There is adequate shrinkage to support schedule flexibility. Routine unexpected absences don’t create stress or an unreasonable workload for those that remain. 

Reduce Your Dependence on Staffing for Workforce Flexibility

Increased staffing costs and decreased agent productivity aren’t going away anytime soon, for a variety of reasons, but there is some good news in our post-covid environment. Automation, technologies powered by artificial intelligence and machine learning, and process improvement practices can reduce our reliance on human-enabled service and add productivity and efficiency gains to the work agents do. This allows us to provide efficient, essential agent-enabled service with a shrinkage buffer to support additional flexibility and reduce turnover AND reduces pressure to maintain high staffing numbers. 

We see indicators of this trend in an executive survey which cites technology, customer journey, knowledge management, self-service, and reducing cycle and handling times as top priorities for 2023. Best practices include to reduce dependence on staffing include: 

  • Prioritizing technologies which reduce the need for employee-enabled service, including customer portals, self-service apps, and proactive communication channels. 
  • Adding technologies and processes which make existing employees more efficient and effective, including automation, artificial intelligence, machine learning, knowledge availability, and performance analytics.  
  • Focusing on analyzing and streamlining key processes and reducing errors and rework, including first contact resolution and time to resolution. 

Unfortunately, no one can tell you the best work arrangement – onsite, remote or hybrid – to support your contact center’s culture, productivity, or strategic goals. But adhering to these best practices will ensure you’re shaping your work arrangements in a way that supports your business, your employees and your customers.