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Managing and Training Remote Agents: What We've Learned So Far

By Special Guest
Doug Lang, SVP of Customer Success, Calabrio
December 07, 2020

When the COVID-19 pandemic sent workers across industries home in mid-March 2020, it presented several unique challenges for contact center organizations. Aside from enabling employees and agents to continue doing their jobs from home with the right technology, managing and training remote agents became an overnight priority. To understand how companies shifted and evolved employee management strategies, Calabrio brought together leaders from contact centers to discuss their experiences and what they’ve learned so far. 

First, Solve the Technology Challenges

Right away, companies noticed that available at-home technology and technology skills varied across agents. According to Paul Grubic, operations director for GE Appliances contact centers, the need for basic PC skills became more evident than ever during the pandemic. In an office environment, businesses usually have someone nearby to help with technology. Not so in the remote environment. 

“One of the biggest challenges was individual aptitude for PCs and computing because it wasn’t something we screened for before,” said Grubic. “It was enlightening to find out how many agents didn’t actually have the internet connection they needed or that the connection they did have was insufficient.”

To work around these issues, Grubic had to be inventive. He started by moving agents experiencing technology barriers to offline or chat-based work relative to their available technology resources. He also used Facebook Messenger to communicate with agents as they were setting up other communication channels.

Other organizations had a similar experience. “We had a mix of remote and in-office staff for some time, with the in-office staff working from home one-to-two days a month,” said one company’s quality and analytics lead. Even with that experience, however, some agents had technology glitches when they moved to working from home full time.

In cases where agents didn’t have the required at-home broadband connections, some companies solved the problem by purchasing mobile hot spots for employees who needed them.

Other companies had to shore up their technology back-end systems, including security, to create an effective work-from-home environment.

“We were 100% in the office before,” said Natalia Brown, chief client operations officer for National Debt Relief. “We had a huge learning curve in making sure we had the right security settings. We had a team effort, including agents, who volunteered their time to have IT go into their computers to help them set up.”

Over Communicating is OK

Contact center leaders agreed that it was challenging, yet critical, to communicate effectively with agents once they were remote. A supervisor could no longer stop by an agent’s desk like they could in the office, so prioritizing communication was important.

One manager explained that engagement was initially a bit of a struggle with remote staff, but team leaders and managers were learning to be more intentional about how, and how frequently, they communicate with teams.

The Microsoft Teams platform turned out to be a helpful resource that many call centers relied on for individual employee meetings and team chatrooms. Not only was it easy to use, it encouraged better communications.

Video was also important for GE Appliances, who found they needed to significantly extend communications with new hires. Grubic shared, “We are using video for side-by-sides or one-on-ones with team leaders. The one-on-ones are frequent.”

National Debt Relief found that increased transparency has also been beneficial when communicating with agents. Brown said, “We put weekly panels together so they could have more interaction. We also developed an anonymous questionnaire where agents could ask anything, including how long we might be on furlough or what is going on with the organization. So, we have a lot of communication with everyone.”

Add Fun into the Routine

Some contact center leaders have come up with innovative ways to engage remote workers.

“Every week, we challenged agents to send us a picture of their remote office, the way they set it up or what they see out the window,” GE’s Grubic recalled. “Then we voted on the best organized office or the best view, etc. The top three would get a prize, which we would send directly to their home.”

“Some of our managers or directors have even picked up donuts and delivered them to their agents, leaving them on the doorstep to maintain social distancing,” Grubic added.

Team leaders at other companies initiated daily conversation topics or themed meetings, such as #MediaMondays, where teams discussed what they binge-watched over the weekend.

At National Debt relief, “We’ve always been big foodies; we would order lunch or breakfast all of the time,” shared Brown. “We’ve given Door Dash gift cards to everyone, then had lunch and a meeting.”

Brown’s staff has also engaged in virtual tournaments, playing popular games like Family Feud or Jeopardy. Home scavenger hunts have been a hit as well.

“People appreciate having a connection with everyone,” Brown said. “We’re having a lot of fun.”

Looking Ahead

A majority of contact centers plan to continue with hybrid working models into 2021, and possibly beyond. Most say they will “likely honor agents’ preference to work remotely or in the office, depending on the agent’s own abilities.”

There will be changes, however, with potential adjustments for new hire training and how remote agents are supported. Each day offers a new opportunity to learn what works and what needs to be improved. Though not hiring now, National Debt Relief expects future hires will need to show a strong ability to work independently and be able to take care of some technical challenges themselves.

“It’s important that applicants have trouble-shooting skills,” Brown said.

“Some agents prefer to work in the office or don’t have the broadband technology to be as effective working from home,” added GE’s Grubic. He also said the company is probing into potential new employees’ computer skills.

“The contact center world has changed forever,” Grubic observed. “I think you will see a lot more work from home. We proved that it works and works well.”

No matter what 2021 brings, contact centers have shown that they have the ability—and the agility—to work on-site in offices and remotely from home without eroding employee or customer experience. As consumers continue to shift how they interact with brands and customer service needs evolve, changes that we thought might be temporary have become valuable areas of growth for contact centers.

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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