Remote Agents Drive Permanent Improvements to Workforce Management

By Special Guest
January 04, 2021

When the COVID-19 pandemic caused most businesses, including contact centers, to close main offices and work from remote locations in mid-March 2020, it meant quantum shifts in customer support and workforce management practices. To find out how contact centers adjusted, how they leaned on cloud technologies and what the future might hold, Calabrio brought together call center leaders to talk about their experiences.   

The Initial Move Home

“It was shocking,” Natalia Brown, chief client operations officer for National Debt Relief, said of the shutdown of her organization’s contact center offices. Though the company had blizzard contingency plans for its New York office, it had no long-term plans for staff working remotely.

“We didn’t have a remote workforce,” Brown said, but, within a week, the company’s entire staff was working remotely, though not without having to overcome some obstacles. “Some couldn’t convert to remote work immediately because they didn’t have adequate high-speed connections at their homes or didn’t have all of the technical skills to work in such a setting.”

Despite the challenges some faced in moving to a remote setting, they were dedicated to the company’s mission – helping consumers reduce their debt – so agents and management worked together and, with the support of Calabrio, improved the company’s service level agreement performance.

Idaho Center Credit Union was accustomed to many of its member (credit unions’ term for customer, since each is a shareholder) interactions occurring in the branch network. But, when those shut down in mid-March 2020, contact center calls jumped from 70,000 a month to more than 100,000, according to Brian Bunderson, the credit union’s member contact center manager.

“The shift to remote work would have been impossible without the support of Calabrio’s cloud technology and a workforce willing to jump in where needed,” Bunderson recalled. “We have an amazing support team. Everyone was helping out.”

He emphasized, “People who had worked in branches had to learn how to take calls and they hopped right on them. When members called, sometimes they reached the same people they would talk to in the branch office.”

Despite the disruptive nature of COVID-19, the combination of technology and staff dedication to service resulted in Idaho Center Credit Union recording some of its best service levels during the height of the pandemic. Though branches have reopened, about half of the contact center staff is still working from home.

According to Nick Hamilton, a business operations analyst at Rackspace, the pandemic meant significant shifts even for companies with veteran remote workforces accustomed to working in cloud-supported environments.

“A lot of people don’t know this, but we invented the first public cloud with NASA in the early 1990s,” Hamilton said. “Our workforce is not a typical contact center.”

Rackspace supports the cloud needs of other companies, so its contact center is made up of technicians – Hamilton called them “Rackers” – who work on support tickets to help customers with firewall, connection and other technical issues. Most of the Rackers already had the ability to work from home before the pandemic hit.

“Though the company was already operating in the cloud with a remote workforce, Rackspace customers weren’t as ready for the changes,” Hamilton explained. “Many were still transitioning to the cloud, and the pandemic accelerated those plans. We wanted to make sure that they were equipped with the best tools and resources moving forward.”

Shifted Scheduling

At National Debt Relief, the shift to remote work also meant contact center operators needed to be more flexible with workforce scheduling arrangements. Employees now at home were juggling work responsibilities with school-age children at home and other challenges.

“We’ve had to look at being more flexible with shifts, including looking at split shifts and schedule swaps,” said Brown. “Our agents have found that this flexibility gives them a new independence.”

“By providing more flexibility, it also demonstrated to our agents that management was listening to their concerns,” Brown added.

Building in flexibility was also important for both management and employees at Rackspace.

“Management wanted a consistent schedule; employees wanted more flexibility,” Hamilton said.

They found a great compromise when management produced a set of schedules that differed from the norm. Included in the options were four-day work weeks with ten-hour days, and a work week featuring four nine-hour workdays and a five-hour weekend shift, the latter helping to ensure Rackspace had the needed workforce for the weekends. There were other shift considerations as well, including more flexibility with lunch times and breaks.

Other Lessons Learned

Beyond learning how to work remotely and providing flexible schedules that still met the contact centers’ staffing and service needs, National Debt Relief executives “learned the importance of listening to agents’ concerns and responding to address agents’ needs,” Brown said.

Rackspace’s Hamilton cited the value of additional insights gleaned through Calabrio Data Explorer: “It helped us define business scorecards and dashboards for true business intelligence.”

Meanwhile, Bunderson observed the credit union now better understands the bandwidth needs when working in a remote environment, and the impact that has on operations and agent productivity.

While many of these lessons were learned as contact centers adjusted to the “new normal,” many of the changes have been beneficial and are changes contact centers will keep into the future.

Looking Ahead: 2021 and Beyond

With most employees now settling into a routine of working from home, contact center managers say they are already looking at their technology investments to see where they can continue to improve both agent and customer experience.

“AI and machine learning will be our big forays in the future,” commented Hamilton. “Some customer tech issues will signal alerts to different Rackspace technicians, sometimes resulting in a handful of alerts for what is a single issue. Once AI and machine learning are fully implemented, the technology will recognize when the multiple alerts are for a single issue and will consolidate them into a single trouble ticket,” Hamilton added.

At National Debt Relief, they will be looking into additional workforce management automation, “relieving supervisors of much of the manual work they have to do today,” Brown said.

And Idaho Center Credit Union “is always looking for ways to improve agent training,” according to Bunderson. “Plus, we want to develop dashboards for better insights.”

When it comes to businesses’ experiences and expectations for customer service operations, the shift may have been sudden, but the changes themselves look to be long term and have catalyzed new ambitions for the future.

About the author: Doug Lang is Senior Vice President of Customer Success at Calabrio. He oversees Calabrio’s Professional Services, Support Services and Training Organization and ensures Calabrio customers are fully supported throughout the entire customer lifecycle, driving customer success and improved time to value. With nearly 25 years’ experience, Doug has built multiple services organizations focused on long-standing customer relationships, and led high-growth companies through the evolution to cloud. Prior to joining Calabrio, Doug was SVP of Business Operations for Arrow System Integration, a leading systems integrator, where he architected a high-impact services organization of more than 500 people. Prior to Arrow, he held services leadership roles at Cross Telecom and ACT. Doug holds a B.S. degree in Industrial Technology Education.

Edited by Erik Linask
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