Posted by: Mike Clarke
When Covid-19 spread across the globe, we entered an uncertain time when businesses suddenly needed to seriously consider the viability of remote working. We previously wrote about the technical requirements and the governance issues that running a call centre operation with home-workers required. In this post, with many businesses now returning at least partially to office working, we’re looking at the considerations behind a blended approach to call centre operations where home-based agents are working alongside colleagues working from the office.
During the pandemic, we received daily updates that could change our plans in an instant. The demand to continue delivering for our customers led to many companies struggling to maintain quality and control while doing everything they needed to do to keep the lights on. We saw articles and videos proclaiming to provide the perfect solution to see you through. Whilst this may have worked for some, many businesses realised that one solution doesn't fit all.
Great things happen when you find yourself on the edge of chaos, and this is when we create innovative solutions to problems we didn't anticipate, and these solutions can propel us forward to new heights. According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), the number of people working remotely in the Information and Communication sector peaked at 80% during the pandemic.
As we begin to phase into something resembling business as usual, we see an increasing number of employees seeking a hybrid approach to work (85% of all workers, according to ONS). It provides a work-life balance for them, and this recent pandemic has demonstrated that it can work for some industries. However, as we noted earlier, one solution doesn't fit all, which has led to many businesses looking at a blended approach to operations.
However, managing a remote workforce is a challenge many will not have faced before and it's essential to consider the value it can add whilst identifying the risks and mitigating them by taking advantage of the available technologies.
The Benefits of Blended Working
Whilst we all hope Covid-19 will remain under control, this pandemic has taught us that we must expect the unexpected. Having a blended solution in place means that should we experience new lockdowns in the future, we already have a solution in place to ensure minimal disruption to our business operations.
Recent figures show that the number of new job adverts containing some variation of the term “home working” are now higher than those that don't. According to a study from FlexJobs, many millennials value work-life balance and flexibility as highly if not higher than financial incentives. This means that to attract a more extensive selection of candidates for job advertisements, flexibility is a big draw, especially for the younger demographic that tends to make up the majority of call centre agent positions.
As well as creating job flexibility, one additional benefit of home working not often considered relates to the spread of viruses, and not just Covid-19, around the workplace. Call centres are notoriously prone to have colds or bugs sweep through the workforce due to close working conditions, shared communal areas and staff tending to socialise together outside of work. If you consider how many days of productivity you lose to sickness in a year, there’s definitely an upside to facilitating some of your staff working from home and thus keeping them active where they may otherwise have succumbed to whatever viruses are going around. Add to this the fact that many staff feel compelled to attend the office when feeling a little under the weather either our of a sense of duty or wanting to help their team hit their targets. Whilst they may be physically capable of carrying out their duties, they risk spreading illness through the office by coming into work. With the ability to work from home available, they can protect their colleagues at the same time as avoiding taking time off if they don’t need to.
Lastly, a side benefit of a home solution often overlooked is that staff are often more willing to put in some overtime to hit targets when they don't have a daunting commute at the end of the day. If overtime is an option for your team then you may well find more volunteers on days they’re working from home than when they’ve got a long commute ahead of them.
What factors do we need to consider
There are many risks associated with handling customer information, and while these risks are present in both a home and office environment, extra attention is needed when data is being handled outside of the office environment. Companies need to address GDPR and PCI, not least for the financial penalties that breaches can cause, but the reputational damage can be irreparable.
When looking at processes, it is essential to have a solution that records employee activity, how often they were on a user's account, whether they have a valid reason, and whether we can relate this to a specific request from a customer. This information needs to be at your fingertips and is good practice whether your employees work within the office or remotely. Keeping precise records of any interaction with customer data is valuable for an audit and the principle of only giving users access to the information they strictly need access to is more important than ever. Accurate logging and reporting will allow you to identify the root cause of failures when dealing with a breach or complaint enabling you to rectify issues and quickly improve the quality of the service you provide.
From a technology standpoint, you can't match a closed in-house network. Still, by utilising a VPN you can employ security protocols across a network to ensure data is kept secure.
A common fear for managers is that staff aren't as efficient working remotely, and they potentially have several distractions from family pets, children and even noise from the local environment. It's standard practice to have key performance indicators for staff; these allow us to see how well they are coping with a workload and identify the opportunities for further training or strengths to improve. Since GDPR ensures we are tracking the employees' interactions with our customer's data and recording any phone calls, you can generate reports that give great insight into an employee's day and highlight any areas of concern.
Having a real-time display of operations is also valuable as is the ability to conduct live call listening and silent coaching (where a team leader or manager can talk an agent through a call without the customer being able to hear them). It is best to find a solution that allows you to configure the information that’s displayed in real-time; having this degree of flexibility will enable you to react quickly to an ever-changing world.
Working from an office limits your rapid growth. You rely on having enough desks and space, and moving to a larger office involves a significant financial outlay and is a challenging procedure at the best of times. If you opt for a home working solution, you can scale up and down at short notice whilst keeping your operational costs down. It can be valuable if you have recently taken on a project with a trial period and you don't want to be stuck with the costs of additional office space if the work dries up. Being able to scale up at short notice also means you can provide a shorter wait before taking on new opportunities, especially if working to a tight timescale.
As noted above, 85% of the workforce are looking to find a work-life balance, and by having a home-working solution in place, you are one step closer to achieving this. Employees typically spend one hour commuting to the office every day, and getting rid of the commute means they can spend this time on doing something they actually want to do instead, leading to better mental health and a happier workforce.
Many employees feel more comfortable in a home environment, increasing confidence and encouraging them to speak up and share their views; every idea may not be great, but it could lead to a new outlook on a situation. Of course, some may thrive on the atmosphere of a buzzing call centre environment and find themselves feeling demotivated being removed from their colleagues. This is where regular one-to-one communication with all team members can make the difference between a successful home working set up and one that causes your KPIs to take a hit.
It is essential to adapt as the needs of your business change without compromising the quality of your output. This is true across all industries, so ensuring that whatever approach you take can elegantly handle change with minimal disruption to your business operations is a critical part of your business planning.
Whether you opt to remain office-based, fully home working or opt for a blended approach, thinking ahead will be in the best interests of your business and your staff. Governing guidelines can always change at short notice, so it's essential to remain updated with the latest changes impacting your business.