The great experiment
March and April 2020 will go down as one of the greatest industrial experiments in history. As Covid struck,
millions were sent home to work with no more than two weeks’ notice.
Many estimated that getting everyone to work from home would take 18 months.
The technical challenges were massive, but could be solved.
The personnel challenges have proved more intractable. How do you replicate a busy calling floor’s atmosphere when your agents are working from home?
Working from home – the challenges
In her July 2021 article in Forbes, Alina Clark described common problems encountered by businesses.
Mental health challenges:
Agents’ stress levels were higher than usual, with the
threat of disease and the financial survival of their employers on their mind as well as life’s normal stresses and strains.
Agents’ camaraderie is their best armour against the stresses of the job. How can this be replicated when the agent works from home, alone, and often unable to communicate casually with her colleagues?
Employees in the office have network administrators at their beck and call when something goes wrong. Employees working from home have to participate in repair efforts themselves, following instructions remotely. Issues take longer to fix and can lead to interruptions in service and security breaches.
Clark reported employees commenting that remote communication was more difficult. They could not understand the other person’s “emotions, mood or energy” so easily. This made building and maintaining professional relationships more difficult.
Work life balance:
This is the flip side of the “distractions” mentioned above. Employees reported having difficulties “switching off” and getting out of the working mindset. There is no clear boundary between home and work. This can lead to reduced productivity, burnout and problems with non-work relationships.
Contact centre culture:
Contact centres tend to make greater efforts than other employers to motivate their staff.
As Dan Moross of MOO said: “I think probably one of the hardest things as a contact centre agent is just the boredom that’s associated with sitting and doing the same thing every day on repeat.”
This challenge becomes greater when agents work from home. They don’t get caught up in the calling floor’s atmosphere and energy.
Megan Jones, in her Contact Centre Helper article, describes what staff enjoy about working in contact centres.
Reward and recognition:
Most contact centres have programs to recognize their agents’ efforts based on various KPIs. They could include financial rewards or simply a public “thank you” from the boss.
The challenge is replicating these events and the atmosphere they generate on line.
Friends for life:
Contact centre agents often form more genuine and deeper friendships with their colleagues than people working in other occupations. The challenges and triumphs agents experience together are often the biggest motivating factor for agents.
James Tyler, the Operations Manager at Woven says: “You become an ‘us versus the rest of the world’ team, and like all team sports or business, it becomes a second family.”
When employees work from home and only communicate with each other when needed, this aspect of the job can be lost.
Fun days, bake offs, charity events and more
Contact centres often hold special events that bring staff closer together such as
fundraising and charity events, celebration days and parties. This makes the contact centre mean more to agents than just a place they work in. Replicating these events on line can be challenging.
Training & development
Contact centres differ from other organizations by offering employees a lot more training and one-to-one coaching. Managers develop deeper relationships with staff as they work with them to improve their performance and achieve their personal goals.
Alina Clark mentioned that communication, including coaching, is more difficult remotely. It’s not so easy to understand the other person’s emotions from a screen, or in some cases, a voice only connection.
Everyone rushed to get their staff working from home. The return to the office will not be so swift, and in some cases, may not happen at all.
Having staff work from home gives organizations the chance to reduce their premises costs considerably.
Many staff have resigned when asked to return to the office. This has also given managers pause for thought. Contact centres are known for their relatively high staff turnover. The last thing they need right now is a headcount shortfall.
Not requiring staff to work on site reduces staff travelling costs. They can make their salaries go further. This has led to staff being happier with a lower salary than otherwise, knowing that they do not have to pay for transportation and expensive catered food.
How Omningage will bring contact centre culture home to the agent
Omningage are currently developing features that will enable organizations to bring the engaging and motivating aspects of contact centre life to the employee at home.
These are motivational techniques used to improve agent performance by making work more meaningful and engaging. This is sorely needed in the contact centre space. As Dan Moross said, a lot of the work is “sitting and doing the same thing every day on repeat.”
This can be linked to recognition events and celebrations for both individual and team performance.
From the technological perspective, gamification is effectively reporting with a human face. Omningage is working on reports which motivate individuals and teams to work harder towards reaching their goals.
These reports can be linked to standard contact centre KPIs, or to indicators of agents’ behaviour, such as how many times they contribute to a forum or knowledge base.
Omningage’s announcement and alerts feature already allows administrators to send short messages to all staff in a ticker tape style ribbon.
Omningage is working on an internal communications system which will allow agents to communicate with each other and with their supervisors.
This will include:
- Live monitoring of calls and whisper coaching. Supervisors can coach agents as they are handling calls.
- Internal video calls between supervisors and agents for meetings and more in-depth coaching sessions.
- Pop-up messages from supervisors to 1 agent or a specific group of agents. Supervisors can communicate changes in plans, incentives or special offers without interrupting the agent’s flow with the customer.
- Quick polls where supervisors can take a vote from their staff. Use cases include: “What objections are customers using the most when you sell Product X?”, or “We are organizing a team event this Friday evening, please vote for ice skating, 10 pin bowling or 5-a-side football”.
This can be used for both work-related communication and as a channel for the casual chat and banter which agents exchange in the office.
Dan Moross, in his article on creating a positive culture in the contact centre, said: “50%, of what you do needs to be powered by the team.”
He recommends that Team Activities should be planned by the agents where possible. They will see it as their own and not something sanctioned by the management to manipulate them.
Omningage, working with Amazon Connect, aims to provide technology to rekindle the atmosphere and energy of a dynamic calling floor when staff are working from home.