Current events have highlighted the importance of work from home as essential to a good business continuity strategy. And this certainly rings true for contact centers who are challenged to continuously connect with their customers. But work from home as a business continuity solution is not a new discussion for contact centers. Need examples?
- Cold and flu season annually prompts a spike in sick time, threatening the contact center’s ability to meet service levels. The typical contact center layout doesn’t naturally support social distancing, and vats of hand sanitizer only help so much.
- Power and network outages unexpectedly take the contact center offline for extended periods of time. In my own experience, a distributed group of remote agents kept us afloat during such incidents. Yes, back up generators and redundant internet connections help, but these may not be realistic for smaller centers.
- Inclement weather like snow and ice renders roads nearly impassable, preventing agents from getting to work. I’ve worked in environments where brave souls with 4-wheel drive rounded up as many agents as they had seat belts. Clearly this isn’t a sustainable strategy.
Contact centers must build remote work, whether it’s temporary or long term, into their business continuity strategy. My question for this article is this: are contact centers prepared for their agents to successfully work from home?
In this article I pose six key questions that every contact center leader needs to consider, along with recommendations to ensure success.
1. Do agents have a work-from-home ready workspace?
A dedicated workspace with desk, chair, and internet service are some of the basic requirements for work from home. But it’s easy to lose sight of what a contact center agent paycheck can afford, given that many are at, or slightly above minimum wage. It was sobering for me when I realized that some of my agents were working two jobs to pay rent and other expenses.
When it comes to a workspace, assume that agents likely live in a smaller place with multiple roommates or family members. Also, consider cases where children are home and require added flexibility. Ideally, agents will have dedicated, distraction-free, remote workspaces, but that’s not always realistic.
Internet connectivity isn’t a given either — especially with the prevalence of cell phones with unlimited data. While that’s great for streaming entertainment, I don’t think you want agents trying to work while tethered to their cell phones.
Recommendation: Assess your work-from-home readiness
Speak with your agents to gauge the quality of their workspace and internet connectivity from that space. As a short term option, a kitchen table or couch might do. Consider subsidizing the cost of internet service for your agents, and in turn, making it a requirement that they maintain sufficient connectivity at all times.
In cases where children are present, you may not be able to defray the cost of childcare, but you can offer those agents flexible scheduling options like split shifts or more optimal start and end times. Another idea is to allow them to focus on digital channels (email, chat, SMS, etc) so customers on the phone don’t hear the kids in the background. You may also want to consider providing them with a good noise-canceling headset.
2. Who will provide agents with a computer and other key equipment?
I’m guessing that a good majority of contact center agents are working from desktop computers, with keyboard, mouse, and a display or two. These setups aren’t exactly portable. I recently spoke with a friend who was looking at the prospect of swapping out hundreds of PCs for laptops in their center just to become work-from-home ready. This switch isn’t something that can be done overnight, and it requires significant time and money.
Recommendation: Have laptops at the ready
If your agents are on desktops computers, switch to laptops with strict policies on when the laptops can leave the office. There’s no reason an hourly employee should take work home with them unless they are working their normal shift, or picking up overtime, remotely.
3. Can agents access everything they need to do their job?
Agents also need access to all necessary tools and applications to do their job. Given that many applications are browser-based, it might be tempting for agents to use their own personal computers — but can you vouch for the security and reliability of their machine and home network? How do they access internal file systems with important documents?
Recommendation: Ensure tools are accessible from anywhere
Take inventory of all tools required for agents to do their job. Your goal should be to eliminate the phrase, “I can’t do this because I’m not in the office.” For connecting with customers, cloud-based CRM, phone, and ticketing systems make it easier when agents are working remotely. While premise-based providers might recommend forwarding calls to cell phones in a pinch (as many of us no longer have home phones), I recommend staying away from the use of personal mobile devices, both for security reasons and to avoid requiring the use of personal devices for work purposes. Agents should be able to plug a headset into a computer and be good to go.
Also consider any internal file systems and whether or not a VPN should be configured for secure access to important company files.
4. How will you maintain security?
A clean desk policy is one way to ensure PCI, SOC2, and HIPAA compliance, keeping customer payment details, personal information, and medical records safe and private. Many contact centers ban the use of cell phones and other note-taking devices on the contact center floor to keep customer information safe. Even one lapse in security can be incredibly costly and damaging. How will you enforce security policies remotely?
Recommendation: Translate security policies to remote work
Consult with your Chief Security Officer (CSO) to set and communicate clear security policies and guidelines. Also, look at where technology can help. Perhaps you’ve been putting off incorporating a secure payment feature into your phone system so agents no longer take credit card information over the phone. It’s time to prioritize this.
5. How will agents get their questions answered?
Contact center agents naturally collaborate to solve customer issues — whether it’s asking a colleague or supervisor for assistance or escalating a call to a manager. When located in a contact center, this may simply require a short walk or the raise of a hand. What happens when you take away the ability to collaborate? Customers are forced to wait longer and/or the quality of answers they receive is degraded.
Recommendation: Have a collaboration tool in place
Whether in an office or remote, contact center teams live and breathe on collaboration tools because of their ability to see who’s online, communicate information widely and ask questions. Training agents to post to a group or channel of people who can help results in better, more efficient assistance than they’d receive by walking across a contact center to talk to a single person. Agents also will benefit significantly when the collaboration tool is integrated with your contact center solution. Be sure to give your policies and processes around its use some careful thought.
6. Are you prepared to monitor agents from anywhere?
There are three things every contact center agent needs to do to be successful:
- Show up to work on time and work their scheduled hours. (schedule adherence)
- Do the work. (productivity)
- Do the work up to the appropriate standard. (quality)
Schedule adherence, productivity, and quality are important metrics to track, but how many brick and mortar contact centers rely too much on the ability to see and hear agents as their primary way of measuring success? That’s not an option when agents are working remotely, so it becomes even more important to give supervisors the right tools. You should be relying on data regardless of location, but this becomes all the more important when agents are working from home.
Recommendation: Build dashboards to track agent performance
With agents out of sight, it’s time to build out your reporting to track these metrics:
- Schedule Adherence – In many cases, a wallboard to ensure that agents are logged and taking breaks when they are supposed to, should give supervisors enough visibility. For larger teams, a workforce management platform can make it easier to track adherence.
- Productivity – You first need to define what productivity means for your contact center. This could be as simple as tracking the amount of time spent interacting with customers or the quantity of work completed. Be sure to determine what quantity is considered acceptable.
- Quality – You also need to define quality. This article lays out all of the necessary elements for a quality definition. Once defined, you can track quality in a couple of ways. Be sure to track it from your perspective through a consistent quality management process, and from the customer’s perspective with a metric like customer satisfaction or Net Promoter Score.
As you define these metrics, your goal should be to help agents produce both a high quantity AND quality of work. Here’s an article where I discuss this important balance in more detail.
Finally, my hope in writing this article is that you’ve gained a better understanding of the unique requirements for contact center agents to work from home. Given current events, it’s likely that you already have agents working remotely, but you may still be establishing policies and processes around your work-from-home agent program. Answering these questions will help to ensure the experience for your agents and customers is a good one.