The British specialist work-from-home (WFH) customer service company Sensée hosted a webinar on October 10th titled: “What’s the business case for 100% back-in-the-office?” I chaired the debate and fielded questions from a live audience over a period of one hour. The panel featured Stephen Loynd, founder of analyst firm TrendzOwl, and Dan Philp, Service Delivery Director at Sensée.
The discussion was wide ranging – as you might expect. Stephen and Dan concluded that there is a stronger business case for flexibility rather than a 100% return to the office, but they also talked about some of the challenges that corporate leaders face as they try to create a new hybrid – or work-from-home (WFH) – future.
When I introduced the session I started by pointing out that the Call Centre Management Association had polled their members on September 14, 2023, to ask for their opinion on WFH and hybrid working. The survey had 186 respondents, which is not an enormous survey, but as all the respondents are CCMA members it does indicate how contact centers in the UK have been responding.
When asked where their front-line agents are currently working, the CCMA survey response was:
- 100% working from home (8%)
- Totally flexible – no office requirement (10%)
- Office at least once per month (15%)
- Office 2-3 days per week (34%)
- 100% office (5%)
- Other (28%)
The interesting result here is that very few companies are 100% WFH or 100% office – a blended hybrid arrangement has become normal. When the same survey asked what will be normal one year from now, the 2-3 days a week option was chosen by 51% of respondents.
This data focused on customer service companies in the UK shows a clear expectation that hybrid contact centers will be more common, not less common. This flies in the face of media stories indicating that companies are tiring of hybrid work and are now insisting their employees return to the office.
Data from Hays plc suggests that the number of office-based professionals now working from a UK office has just passed the number of hybrid workers for the first time since the Covid pandemic. But companies are struggling to enforce return-to-office orders. A recent BCG study found that only 70% of employees are following orders when told that WFH is no longer allowed.
Mark Hall, UK head of LHH Recruitment Solutions, is quoted in the Hays research saying: “You may get a company saying ‘I want you in three-four days a week’ but the people that actually control the business — the actual line managers — will demonstrate flexibility because they want to retain talent. They’re doing a delicate balancing act.”
I think all these various factors – the new research, the webinar discussion, and the CCMA survey in the UK – all point to a radically different future for customer service processes. This is equally applicable to companies that manage their customer service processes internally as to those that hire a specialist contact center specialist.
Think about it this way. It was very rare for customer service agents to be based at home before the pandemic. A few companies made it work, especially where that was their specialist focus, but most internal contact centers and most BPO services were in specialized office facilities.
The pandemic moved the work location into the home, but it changed much more. Once the commute was removed it became possible to plan for more flexible shifts – rather than one continuous block of 8 hours. This might just be a split shift allowing for childcare responsibilities during the day, but it could also be longer hours one day and none on another day.
The expectation for flexible hours grew because of the move into a WFH environment. Many agents are also becoming more demanding about which brands or products they support. If they took the job because they were supporting a video game then they are not prepared to be moved to an insurance helpdesk just because that account needs more agents.
Agents working in contact center roles are becoming more demanding on all three of these factors – the account being supported, the flexible shifts, and the work location.
This might sound more complex for the companies involved, but think about what it really means. Agents that have more control of the brands they support, more control over working hours, and more control over when they can work from home are likely to be far more engaged and satisfied in their job.
Attrition has long been a major problem for contact centers. The jobs have been seen as low-wage and entry-level with almost no autonomy. Nobody is very loyal in this type of job. But as the human agents gradually earn more respect for their expertise – because they will work more on the brands they enjoy working with and AI is increasing handling simpler problems – I believe the customer service role will start earning some respect.
We can already see it in IT support. The third-level support experts and network security gurus are seen as smart people with knowledge and experience. This will eventually be the kind of status that customer service agents (or experts) can demand.
WFH has been an important catalyst to this change, but it is just one ingredient in a wave of change that will see many traditional contact centers closing forever. However, as the buildings close, more genuine WFH career opportunities are created.
There is a recording of the entire one-hour webinar session that you can access by contacting Michael Gray at Sensée.
Let me know what you think about the WFH debate in customer service. Leave a comment here on the article or get in touch via my LinkedIn.