We’re seeing more and more contact centers moving to home-based agent programs. Some do it to expand their existing workforce, others to tap into new resources. Yet others choose to reward agent success by letting them to work at home. With growth fueled by cloud-based solutions, and a move to bring jobs back on-shore (among other things), over half of all contact centers have some percentage of their agents working from home, according to the National Association of Call Centers.
A number of key drivers lead contact centers to explore work at home opportunities. First is access to a broader workforce: people with disabilities, retirees, or those living far from your contact center may not be able to travel to a daily job, yet they often bring a wealth of experience and a great work ethic. Home agents also help with business continuity, especially important in 24 x 7 centers. They also provide staffing flexibility that is difficult in a bricks-and- mortar environment. Home agents can work micro-shifts, split shifts, or be readily available to log in during times of peak volume. Finally, contact centers look to home agents as a way to reduce operating expenses through savings in real estate needs and possibly labor costs.
Even though there is an opportunity to reduce expenses with a home-based agent program, it should not be the sole driver, nor is it as large as many assume. There are trade-offs: For example, the number of supervisors required to manage home-based agents, or the cost of supporting their technology requirements.
So are you ready to join contact centers like 1 800 FLOWERS, Walgreens, or JetBlue in the move to virtual agents?
A home-based agent program must be implemented with a strategy and understanding that it is a very different model from an office-based environment. Establish the goals of the program and the operating model to start. At home work brings a unique set of challenges and requirements, which include:
- Acquiring talent – In addition to traditional contact center skills, home-based agents must be able to work independently and without direct supervision. Often it’s helpful to hire people who have experience working remotely.
- Training – Home-based agent training should combine on-site and virtual training. Many companies have employees come to a corporate office to experience the culture during initial training. Longer term, remote training competency is critical for success.
- Technology - Having an infrastructure to support both voice and data at home is a critical success factor for home-based agents. Many organizations use tools that enhance communication and create a sense of teamwork such as social networking, presence, and video platforms for interactive meetings and training.
- Employee engagement - Communications with virtual agents is critical and more challenging than with office-based agents; the key is to leverage multiple channels. In addition, management and peer recognition must be handled differently.
- Supervision – Because supervisors can’t walk the floor as they do in the contact center, they must be able to effectively use e-mails, videoconferencing, and other methods of communicating to remote groups and individuals. Emotional intelligence also becomes critical when supervising remote workers.
- Performance management - Create specific performance standards and remediation guidelines for at home agents. How remediation is handled may be tricky – do you have the agent come work in the office until he or she is meeting performance standards?
- Career development – You’ll need to develop a career path model that allows agents to continue their work at home status if they want.
Elaine Cascio is a vice president at Vanguard Communications Corp. Contributing to this article were Scott Sachs and Lisa Stockberger, also from Vanguard.
Elaine Cascio is a vice president at Vanguard Communications Corp. (www.vanguard.net), a consulting firm specializing in customer experience, self service, contact center processes, operations and technology.
Edited by Maurice Nagle