Boost Diversity And Inclusion By Embracing WFH

Diversity and inclusion (D&I) has long been understood to be a valuable way of introducing new ideas and innovation into companies. More voices from more diverse backgrounds creates space for a better understanding of your customers.

It’s also great for the bottom line. It is not just the right thing to do for your team, it can also lead to better business outcomes. D&I ensures that you don’t have a team that all think the same way because they are drawn from a very narrow group of people. 

It enhances creativity and cultural awareness and ultimately it will make your company more profitable – that’s what the experts at McKinsey have found.

But often when people write articles about diversity and inclusion there is a caveat – it’s difficult to get it right. It requires the HR team to align on a broader corporate strategy. It requires more effort during recruitment. Even when corporate leaders know that it is important, they often find it hard to achieve.

There is an easier way. Offer people the opportunity to work from home (WFH) and you will naturally start attracting a more diverse group of people to your company.

How can it be this simple?

First, think again about what we really mean by diversity and inclusion. The immediate response if you ask someone to define this strategy is that the company needs to attract a wider variety of people from different ethnicities and religions. However, this is a very narrow approach to D&I and misses some vital opportunities.

Contact centres provide a very clear example. When a contact centre relies on people working from an office then it is only possible to recruit people within commuting distance of the office – so diversity already depends on the area where the contact centre is located.

In addition, most contact centres with a requirement to work in-office focus on young people at the start of their career. The contact centre is seen as a gateway to jobs in sales, marketing, or customer service management so this emphasis on hiring young people self-perpetuates.

Now consider the WFH alternative for a contact centre service. 

There is no need to commute so the jobs on offer are available to people with a disability that makes it a challenge to commute twice a day. There is no need to be sitting in an office full of young people, so people of all ages with a variety of skills can be approached – including retired people who want to work flexible part-time hours.

Offering flexible hours from home also means that people with caring responsibilities, such as parents or carers for elderly relatives, can also contribute. They might not be able to work 8 hours a day, but a four-hour shift in the middle of the day could be exactly what you need to boost agents during the lunchtime peak.

All these people are usually excluded from the traditional workplace that demands an office commute and then a long shift at a single location. Working mums, long-term home carers, wheelchair users, and the recently retired. They can all participate fully in work if they have the flexibility to work from home.

Meta, the huge tech company responsible for Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram, achieved their own goals for diversity and inclusion two years early because of remote working. McKinsey research has found that many underrepresented groups of employees have a strong preference for home working because it levels the playing field – they don’t need to be in an office full of people that look or feel ‘different’, they can just focus on the work that needs to be done.

It is clear that office-based jobs attract a certain type of employee – diversity is traditionally low because the employees must all share the same values. They must be willing to commute for work. They must live near their employer. They must be prepared to dedicate a solid block of time everyday to being in the office. There is very little flexibility in this traditional view of how professional work is organised.

The ability to work from home creates many more possibilities than just allowing your team to work without requiring a commute. It allows you to recruit from anywhere, which also means you can raise the bar on who joins the team. If they can be recruited from anywhere across the country – or even internationally – then you can afford to look only for the best potential team members.

It also creates the opportunity for much more diversity in the team. The contact centre example makes it clear that many different groups of people could become available if this flexibility is on offer. The opportunity exists beyond contact centres alone – as the success at Meta indicates – which then leads to an obvious question: if you are not already promoting diversity and inclusion by allowing team members to work from home then why not?

Can AI Play A Role In Coaching And Mental Health Support For Employees?

Most of the recent media coverage of Artificial Intelligence (AI) has focused on the possibility that jobs will be completely replaced by AI. During the Covid pandemic, the relatively sober ‘Economist’ featured a headline suggesting that robots may be about to take your job. IBM announced a freeze on hiring where AI could replace the open position – potentially thousands of roles will be replaced.

Most of the media coverage is hyperbole, particularly in jobs where human empathy is still valued. Although there are many sections of the customer journey that can be handled by self service, when a customer really needs urgent help there is still nothing better than a reassuring voice. Many customer service interactions still require this human engagement, so we are not about to see a widespread replacement of contact centre agents just yet.

However, there are some interesting ways that AI can help agents in the contact centre. It can become a virtual assistant, taking notes and summarising calls. It can monitor customer sentiment and the quality of the interaction, so all calls can be checked for quality rather than just a random selection. AI can access information that the agent and customer are talking about, so there is no need to place the customer on hold while the agent performs a manual search.

All this can boost productivity and improve the customer experience (CX). However, I think there is another area that could be extremely positive for remote agents that are working from home: coaching and personalised guidance.

Remote agents will naturally not have a team leader by their side. Their managers are probably monitoring most of their activities through dashboards and real-time reports, rather than listening to a large number of the actual customer calls.

This can create a gap for the coaching process. Detractors of home working often say that it does not facilitate in-person learning or coaching and it isn’t possible for a team leader to spot when problems are developing.

But this is rather different with AI. The content, context, and sentiment of each call can be analysed and the agent can be guided to specific training workshops that will help them to boost any weaker areas of their performance. This can also be a useful way to monitor mental health, to see if the agent is behaving unusually or has a different attitude to normal.

Some might think that this monitoring and real-time guiding and coaching has an air of ‘Big Brother’ – an all-seeing intelligence that misses nothing. This is a natural concern and some companies do have form – remember all the web cams deployed during the pandemic because paranoid managers were unsure how to manage people they could not see?

Companies are already exploring how AI monitoring can help to reduce stress at work. Software already exists to help identify when remote workers may be feeling isolated – it automatically connects people to their colleagues if they are identified as lonely.

Some may fear a new era of control and supervision, where AI can read brain patterns and know what you are thinking. However, this is over-analysing the situation. Just like many other tools, AI can be used productively or in a more controlling fashion.

Think back to those webcams. They are great for remote agents that want to feel more connected to their team. Audio-only calls now feel a little odd for many office workers – we are used to talking with our colleagues on camera and engaging in meetings where we can see multiple colleagues on camera.

This connectivity and team-building is positive. Taking still photos at random times to check your employees are at their desk is not. It shows a lack of trust and an inability to manage people using tools such as a virtual office – see our LiveDesk for a good example.

Likewise with mental health monitoring. If companies start scanning every spoken or typed word for signs that their employee is under stress then it should only be driven by the desire to help employees when they are stressed.

AI – and in particular generative AI – can play an important role in supporting employees and helping them to cope with periods of stress or anxiety. In a contact centre environment it can be used to identify stress triggers and can offer coaching that may help to avoid difficult situations – all personalised for the individual.

Some companies deal with stress by running training sessions on ‘managing stress’ rather than dealing with the root cause of the problem. We are now creating technology systems that are becoming smart enough to identify when there are problems and what may be the cause.

Enlightened companies and managers will see this as an opportunity to support their team. There will be some less principled use of these technologies as monitoring systems, but the companies that deploy technology in this way will soon realise that they are driving their own employees away.

We have a choice how to use tools such as AI. Where it can offer support and positive individual coaching we should embrace it and look to the future.

Could the Digital Workspace be the Killer Business App The Metaverse has been waiting for?

The history of killer apps is fascinating because each time one is discovered it can entirely change how we use a device or gadget. The first documented killer app was the Visicalc spreadsheet for the Apple II computer. Released in 1979 it was such a compelling tool that people bought the computer just so they could use the software.

The same thing happened to the IBM PC when the spreadsheet Lotus 1-2-3 and word processor WordStar were released. These business tools were so important that users went and bought the hardware they needed to use them.

More recently, software such as Netscape’s Navigator made it easy to browse the web in 1994 and in the late nineties Napster made it easy to share music online. Time and time again, software can influence the hardware we all use and change how people behave and interact.

The most recent example where this was expected to happen was the metaverse. For the past few years Mark Zuckerberg’s company, Meta, has been investing tens of billions of dollars into the idea that the next iteration of the internet will be immersive and visual. We will all need to use the Meta Quest headset as we all use our iPhones today.

According to the Wall Street Journal, however,  the plan has failed to reach its goals. Meta had expected to have 500,000 regular users of its flagship metaverse environment ‘Horizon Worlds’ by the end of 2022, yet the reality is less than 200,000. Almost all users that try it don’t last more than a month. The number of users is declining, rather than growing. Even Meta employees don’t use it.

Considering that over 5 billion people now regularly use the internet, this is disappointing. Whatever does come next will need to meet the requirements of billions of users.

Cost is one major factor. A Meta headset is likely to set you back over $1,000 so you need to be a committed early adopter to really want to experience the metaverse at present.

However, I think there is a more important reason – there is no killer app. If you look at the original launch ad for Horizon Worlds it features people beekeeping in a virtual world, cooking Japanese food, and playing golf. When Mark Zuckerberg appeared in some demo videos he was playing cards with friends in a gravity-free environment and talking of being able to hang out with friends online.

Nobody has ever said that they want to get home from a tough day at work to then pull on a VR headset and spend the evening farming virtual honey from virtual bees. Everyone that does enjoy socialising online usually has a specific reason to be in whatever system they are using – usually a game like Roblox or Fortnite where you can play and talk to friends at the same time.

These are games. People have a reason to be in that environment because they want to play the game. The metaverse, as it exists, has no strong purpose. It costs a lot to participate and there is nothing pulling people in and saying ‘you have to be a part of this.’ Do people really wants to go online to just hang out?

However, there is one idea that I believe may be important for companies like Meta – the workplace.

Modern work is more fragmented than it was before the pandemic. Now it’s common to have people working from the office, from home, from a cafe or airport, and everyone is on the same team and connected using various business tools such as Slack or Teams.

At Sensée we use LiveDesk to bring our teams together. It is effectively a metaverse, a virtual office, where people can see their colleagues, work with them or just socialise with them. It creates a much stronger sense of the team working together as one.

This doesn’t require VR headsets, but then our team probably would not enjoy having to wear one all day. Many people experience nausea from motion sickness when using them anyway.

A digital workspace like LiveDesk reflects how people are working in the 2020s. We are rarely sitting side by side with colleagues today – often we may be working alongside colleagues that are not even in the same country. However, if we can see them in our shared virtual office then the team building becomes real.

Perhaps the digital workspace will be the saviour of the metaverse concept, but then it could be Microsoft with their Teams and LinkedIn platforms that beats Meta to the initial business-focused market. Only time will tell.

We already have our own solution and we know that when clients see it they can’t understand how remote work can be managed any other way. Perhaps the digital workspace is the spreadsheet of the 2020s? The killer app that will help people become used to operating in virtual worlds. It certainly isn’t going to be a game of virtual table tennis or beekeeping.