The past year has produced many trials and tribulations for businesses and workers. The pandemic-fueled recession has been like no other, producing high levels of instability, uncertainty, and vulnerability and fundamentally changing the way we do business.
But along with the negative outcomes, there's also one shining example of a positive consequence - the seismic shift towards a work from home model in the general workforce and more specifically among contact center agents and staff.
Many say this adjustment was long overdue. Afterall, the increasing adoption of cloud technology has put a work from home agent model within reach for more and more contact centers. But for whatever reason - inertia, competing priorities, lack of trust, etc. - many contact centers were just dipping their toes into the remote worker pond when 2020 came along and shoved them right in. One Aberdeen study revealed that only 14% of businesses had remote capabilities in 2019 (pre-pandemic) but that number increased almost three-fold in 2020 to 51%.
Despite the stress involved, this push to quickly implement remote capabilities is a good thing. Organizations that figure out how to swim in the remote worker pond could find themselves with new flexibility and business resiliency, lower fixed costs, and more satisfied and engaged employees. The Aberdeen study cited above found that businesses with remote capabilities also experience higher revenue and employee productivity.
But it's not all smooth sailing (or swimming). Shifting to at-home agents comes with its own set of challenges. The initiative has technical implications, hiring and onboarding processes need to be altered, and managers need to figure out how to monitor, engage, and develop agents remotely.
Believe it or not, these challenges are, in fact, quite manageable. There are plenty of technical tools and time-tested best practices to help organizations successfully support remote agents. Contact centers that take the time and effort to make the transition the right way will find it's well worth it in the long run.
This post will provide tips for hiring and managing at-home agents. Many of these tips are from our customers that successfully use remote agents. Let’s start with the first steps in the agent employment life cycle – hiring and onboarding.
It’s time to transform old hiring and onboarding processes
If your contact center is a traditional "on-site" workplace, you probably have standard hiring and onboarding processes that work really well for your current model. But they likely include a lot of in-person interactions - job fairs, on-site interviews, classroom training, HR sessions with lots of new hire paperwork.
Unless you are going to fly candidates and new hires in for these activities, they need to be modified to be done remotely. Here are some tips for how to approach hiring and onboarding of work from home agents.
1. Make sure your digital presence is top-notch
The fact that remote agent candidates can't assess your facility and their potential teammates firsthand means they will put more emphasis on your digital presence when making an employment decision. The career page of your website needs to be high quality and include features like agent testimonials, details about how remote work is structured, information about your culture, and anything else a job candidate should know about your organization. Additionally, your social media accounts should be up-to-date and include posts about working at your company.
2. Update your candidate profiles
Because of the nature of remote work, you might have slightly different hiring profiles for on-site versus at-home agents. At-home agents need to be able to perform well in a solitary environment without direct supervision, so their candidate profile might have more emphasis on independence and the ability to self-start.
3. Determine which states you'll hire in
Each state has its own employment laws, and it's no secret that some are more cumbersome than others. When you expand beyond your current location, you need to understand and abide by the laws of the states in which your remote agents reside. You may find it more manageable to hire only in certain states. For example, our customer Frontline, a BPO that uses a predominantly remote agent model, made an informed decision to only hire in 16 states.
4. Identify the best job boards and social networks
You may find that your usual places to post jobs aren't able to reach candidates in multiple states looking for remote work. Consider job boards and social networks that specifically target people looking for work from home jobs. Additionally, if you narrow down your hiring locations to certain states, familiarize yourself with local job boards.
5. Interview agent candidates in the channel they will be supporting
If you're hiring a phone agent, what better way to assess their phone skills than a phone interview? Likewise, requiring email agent candidates to respond to questions via email will allow you to assess the quality and tone of their writing. These methods can be supplemented by hiring tools that can, for example, allow candidates to record video responses to certain questions, which provides you with more material to evaluate and also lets you confirm that the person matches the ID they provided (you don't want to hire an imposter!). A Skype or Zoom call can also do the trick.
6. Enable video training
This one is pretty obvious, but you still need to think through the details of your training approach. Will you have live training sessions or a video library that new agents can access on demand? How will you assess their knowledge and system competency? Will you piece together your own system or invest in a new training tool? Positioning your new agents for success by providing good training is critical for securing satisfaction and engagement. Make sure whatever solution you land on can handle both new hire and ongoing training.
Old management processes also need to be transformed
When everyone is on-site, supervisors can just walk the contact center floor to make sure their team members are there and doing what they're supposed to be doing. Additionally, this enables supervisors to provide timely support to agents who need assistance. Shifting to an at-home agent model requirements a management paradigm shift and processes and technology to ensure agents are productive, supported, and engaged.
Research by Nemertes revealed that managing agents was the second most cited challenge regarding moving to a remote workforce.
Fortunately, contact centers can use modern technology to keep tabs on agents, ensure they are engaged with their teams and the organization, and provide ongoing support and development.
Below are some examples of agent management processes that need to be modified and tips for using technology to ensure your at-home agent initiative will be successful for your agents and your business.
1. Visibility into what agents are doing
For most supervisors, this can be the hardest thing about not being physically located with their agent teams. They'll wonder if their agents have shown up for work, if they're working on the right tasks, and if they're being fully productive. These are all questions that can be answered by the right contact center software. For example, workforce management software that calculates real-time schedule adherence can let supervisors know if agents are sticking to their schedules and standard ACD reports provide required information about agent productivity, including volume handled and average handle times.
2. Keeping lines of communication open
A best practice of managing remote workers is communicate, communicate, communicate. And then communicate some more. You don't want your at-home agents to feel disconnected or unsupported, so regularly touching base and providing information is key. Successful contact centers use a variety of communication methods, including posting information on their internal website, pushing out email newsletters, and holding weekly, or sometimes even daily, 1:1 and/or team Zoom calls. Additionally, the best contact center software includes messaging capabilities that allow agents to reach out in real-time to anyone in the company that can help them resolve their current customer issue
3. Instilling teamwork and preserving culture
Creating cohesive teams and extending your organization's culture to your remote workforce will certainly take more effort, but with creativity and the right technology it can be done successfully. For example, you can still do fun dress up days but instead of voting for the winner in person, agents can vote on photos the other agents submitted. Additionally, industry-leading performance management tools include gamification functionality that lets agents collaborate on meeting team-level goals or engage in some friendly competition by seeing which agent can hit the goal first.
4. Performance improvement and ongoing development
Cloud-based quality management and performance management software is ideally suited for remote employee development. The automated workflows allow agents to access things like performance dashboards, quality evaluations, call recordings, and performance improvement plans from anywhere. And coaching sessions can be handled via a voice or Skype call.
5, Helping at-home agents draw a distinct line between home and work
One of the biggest drawbacks about working from home is that the line between home and work can become blurred, leading to burnout. The best way to help agents with this issue is to establish a policy that agents shouldn't be doing work outside their scheduled shifts. For example, they shouldn't be responding to their supervisor's emails or checking the status of help desk tickets after hours. If you see this, put a stop to it in order to ensure work-life balance. We all can easily get caught in this trap!
Your agents are worth it
Some people aren't suited for remote work. Maybe they need the structure or social interaction that on-site work provides. But others will thrive at home and value the benefits.
The NICE inContact 2020 Customer Experience (CX) Transformation Benchmark revealed that 70% of contact centers plan to continue allowing agents to work from after the pandemic. Why? According to the previously cited Nemertes study, the top reason is to improve agent quality of life. Preparing for future disasters was a fairly distant second.
These organizations recognize the benefits agents can realize from working remotely, including:
- Eliminating the commute. Instead of spending 30-60 minutes driving to and from work, agents can reclaim this time for their personal lives. Plus, it reduces wear and tear on cars and lowers gasoline expenses.
- Flexible work schedules. Working from home makes split shifts and block shifts more practical to take advantage of. An agent could work in the morning and early afternoon, take a four hour "break" to watch her son's baseball game and cook dinner, and then work a couple more hours after her son has gone to bed. Flexible schedules = work-life balance.
- Take the job wherever they go. Many remote workers have a portable job they can take with them wherever they go. This should have wide appeal for college students, military spouses, or just anyone with a case of wanderlust. Flexibility and a portable job are two more benefits that should be highlighted during the remote agent recruitment process.
Agents play such a crucial role in the customer experience that it's often said that agents are a contact center's greatest asset. Yet those assets typically flee the company at above average rates. Shifting to a work at home model could be the thing that boosts agent retention rates to more acceptable levels. Modifying your hiring and management processes to accommodate at-home workers takes some investment but aren't your agents worth it?
Find out more
For more practical tips and guidance for implementing a remote agent program, check out our white paper, Contact Center Agility in the Post-COVID World. It's loaded with useful information to help you design and implement a successful remote agent model.