Building A Team Of Remote Workers Without Them Feeling Isolated

Sensée hosted a webinar on October 10th titled: “What’s the business case for 100% back-in-the-office?” The session was chaired by CX analyst and CX Files podcast host Mark Hillary. The panel featured Stephen Loynd, founder of analyst firm TrendzOwl, and Dan Philp, Service Delivery Director at Sensée.

The discussion was wide ranging – as you might expect. Stephen and Dan concluded that there is a stronger business case for flexibility rather than a 100% return to the office, but they also talked about some of the challenges that corporate leaders face as they try to create a new hybrid – or work-from-home (WFH) – future.

One important question focused on the practicalities of team building with remote team members. Clearly a customer service team that is all collected together inside a single contact centre can be managed as a team because they are physically located together. This isn’t true with remote workers, so how does it work and what are some of the negative consequences – such as mental health problems?

Dan talked about the LiveDesk tool that is used inside Sensée. He said: “LiveDesk is effectively our virtual floor. Every agent on every account is required to log into LiveDesk every day. This is where they can ask support questions and we have floor walking supervisors in there – it is where everybody goes to interact.”

He added: “When everybody is working remotely, you can have a team member in Aberdeen working alongside someone in Cornwall. It’s important that they can engage on a daily basis so they become a real team.”

Stephen commented that he has been writing about and exploring this question for almost two decades now. He said: “Mental health for people working from home was an important issue for business process outsourcing companies back in the mid-2000s. It was clear that only a minority of people really thrived on the isolation of working from home – most people would have some mental health issues unless there was a strategy to address this.”

He then added an interesting point from the recent debate about getting contact centre employees back into the office. He said: “One of the recent arguments employees have been using in their fight for the right to remain working remotely is that they feel their mental health will be negatively impacted if they are forced to return into a contact centre.”

This is an interesting observation. Reducing the flexibility to work from home is now a larger driver of mental health concerns than the earlier issues over isolation and workers not feeling like they are part of a team.

In many ways, the LiveDesk system Dan described addresses many of the problems of isolation. Team members are logged into a platform and this becomes a virtual office. They can see each other in this space, ask questions, talk to a manager, and even socialise and just talk about their weekend. They may be sitting alone at home, but they are actively participating in teamwork on the platform.

This type of platform, or virtual office, reflects a wider change. The key themes in the 2022 Microsoft New Future Of Work Report demonstrate that work has changed dramatically in the past few years. The research draw conclusions along these lines:

  • The Hybrid Work Era has begun: Employees strongly prefer hybrid work and employers are increasingly planning for a hybrid future 
  • New technologies are rapidly improving work: When and where work happens is in flux and co-evolving with the technology. We are seeing new hybrid meeting environments.
  • Improved practices can make work better now: Technology improvements may take time, but some changes don’t have to wait.
  • The definition of productivity is expanding: Organizations and employees are increasingly recognizing that wellbeing, the balance between work and life, inclusivity, and other aspects of the employee experience are important 

It’s important to note that the Microsoft research indicates that it is not just the location of work that is changing, it is also how people are interconnected. The ability to bring people into a team and to avoid the problems of isolation are dramatically increased now. Hybrid meeting environments and many new asynchronous communication tools (such as Slack) are creating highly immersive work environments that employees can participate in from home.

A meta-analysis of seven different UK mental health studies shows that there were very few problems early in the pandemic period. When working from home was a novel experience, very few people had a problem with it. More problems developed as time went on because the need to work from home was becoming normalised and yet in most cases there was no new platform or support – just a daily call.

The study did not find a major shift in reported mental health conditions after the restrictions were eased. This is an interesting insight because it shows that the pandemic restrictions did cause an increase in mental health issues, but if the levels did not change when restrictions were removed then perhaps it was not directly working from home that caused the problems – more research is needed on this point.

It is clear that companies need to support the team-building process and supply tools that can bring people together in shared tasks and goals. Without this support, it is very easy for remote workers to feel isolated and this is where health issues start.

The complete webinar discussion covered many different areas in addition to the question of how to build a team that is staffed only with remote team members. I have a recording of the full one-hour discussion that I can send to anyone on request – just contact me here.

Is Flexible And Hybrid Work Here To Stay Permanently?

A recent Sensée webinar asked the question: “What’s the business case for 100% back-to-the-office?” The discussion covered a lot of ground, but it was clear that for most office-based professional workers there is a very weak case for a 100% return to the office.

The ongoing experiment with work-from-home (WFH) and hybrid work, where the employee mixes some office time with some time based at home, has led to a global oversupply of office space. The Financial Times reported recently that office vacancies are now higher than they have been for over 20 years – in both the UK and US.

The productivity and employee satisfaction data does support the case for WFH. Most employees prefer flexibility, rather than an employer insisting on their work location every day of the week.

However, one of the perennial arguments about the value of employees congregating in an office is that it uses less energy to heat and light a single building compared to all the individual homes many hundreds, or thousands, of employees would be using if they stayed at home all day.

Intuitively this sounds like a strong environmental argument, but it is undermined by a recent National Academy of Sciences study that found going from a 5-day in-office week to 2 days reduces carbon use by 11%, 4 days by 29% and 5 days a week by a whopping 58%. The analysis combines commuting and non-commuting travel (e.g. driving to run errands if you work remotely, etc.), office energy, home energy and ICT energy.

A recent study by the recruitment company Hays plc suggests that the situation in the UK is very finely balanced. Their data (published on October 23) suggests that the number of office-based professionals now working from an office has just passed the number of hybrid workers for the first time since the Covid pandemic.

The problem is that many employees are just ignoring back to the office mandates. Employees only come in for an average of two days a week when bosses are mandating three or four days, according to research by AWA. When companies try to enforce a complete return to the office, fewer than 70% of employees comply with the instruction, a recent BCG study found.

Mark Hall, UK head of LHH Recruitment Solutions, is quoted in the Hays research saying: “You may get a company saying ‘I want you in three-four days a week’ but the people that actually control the business — the actual line managers — will demonstrate flexibility because they want to retain talent. They’re doing a delicate balancing act.”

This balancing act may differ, depending on the industry, and even individual companies. If employees are ignoring company-wide ‘return to the office’ mandates then in most organisations they should expect a rebuke or penalty. However, as suggested, there is now a greater expectation of flexibility and many managers will want to hold on to their talent regardless of what the head office rules say.

Bloomberg reported in July that British employees want to work from home for at least 2.3 days per week – approximately half their working week at home and half in the office. What they want and what they get may depend on the strength of any economic recovery. If employers feel they have the power to demand strict compliance to corporate rules because the economy isn’t looking very strong, then more employers will feel they can make demands.

But this also leaves best practice employers and employees with hard-to-find skills in a strong position. An employer can quickly position their brand as an employer of choice by offering flexibility over work location and rejecting the dogmatic return to the office.

The Harvard Business Review has supported this view. In fact, their analysis also suggests that any employer that wants to truly support a diverse workforce that embraces disability and neurodivergent employees must offer flexibility over work location. Sensée noticed this long ago. There is a vast pool of talent out there that cannot – or does not want to – commute to an office and spend the next 8-10 hours working a shift in an office cubicle.

It’s worth remembering that most people don’t have a choice anyway. This entire debate is focused on office-based professionals that can work flexibly. Around 60% of jobs require a person to be in a specific place – you can’t perform heart surgery or a haircut on a Teams call – but it remains an important debate for all those who have now seen that flexibility works for their job.

The Covid pandemic has changed working patterns and flexibility around work location forever. Professor Nick Bloom of Stanford University has estimated that flexibility is worth around 8% in pay to most employees, so we may see people in very inflexible jobs start to demand more pay as an “inflexibility bonus.” 

In the US, employees are currently expecting annual pay increases of about 7%. Add another 8% on that for those who are told to get back into the office and it suddenly looks like flexibility might be a very attractive option for employers as well as employees.

Flexibility is here to stay, despite the pleas of the commercial real estate industry for a return to pre-covid normality.

(Webinar) 6 Things You Must Do Well In The New World Of WFH

THURSDAY NOV 2ND, 10 – 11.30AM

Chair: Sandra Busby, Cnect Wales

In this webinar we look at how to best replicate the things you’ve traditionally done well in the office environment in the new world of hybrid and home working.

We will focus on 6 aspects:

  • Team culture and engagement
  • Communications (and making sure messages land)
  • Training
  • Managing performance
  • Workday scheduling (for flexibility)
  • Reward and recognition

We’ll also consider the technology required to create digital workspaces that bring the worlds of home and office together.

Sandra Busby, Managing Director of Cnect Wales will be joined by Alison Carroll (Service Delivery Manager) and Jen Sutherland (Team Leader) from Sensée.

Click here to register for the webinar.

Sensée and Bupa homeworking team named Outsourcer of the Year at the 2023 Northern Contact Centre Awards

We’re delighted to announce that the Sensée Bupa customer service homeworking team was named ‘Outsourced Contact Centre of the Year – Medium’ at the 2023 Northern Contact Centre Awards gala dinner last Friday night.

The Sensée team comprises over 200 home-based advisers who handle health enquiries for Bupa customers. This covers everything from detail changes to conducting assessments of customer conditions against eligibility criteria, and booking treatments. The team also assists with Bupa Mobile App & website queries via webchat, email and phone. 

Business partners for 7 years, the Sensée and Bupa relationship is not just longstanding but possibly the most mature outsourcing relationship in the UK work-from-home/hybrid space.

The annual Northern Awards is a celebration of contact centre excellence for businesses operating in the North of England. Other winners at the 2023 Awards were Ageas, BT, EE, Foundever, IAG Loyalty, Motability Operations, NFU Mutual, Proximo Group, RAC Motoring Services, Shared Services Connected Ltd, and Verastar Ltd. The event was organised and operated by the Northern Contact Centre Forum, a networking organisation that supports contact centres right across the North of England.

“We are extremely proud of the hard work and dedication of the Bupa homeworking team and delighted that their achievements have been recognised with this Award” said Paul Whymark, Chief Operating Officer, Sensée.

Is WFH better for the environment?

It’s long been suggested that, by removing the need to commute, WFH is better for the environment than office-based working. However there’s been very little independent research into the topic over the last few years to back up the claim.

A new scientific paper on the impact of WFH on the environment, recently posted by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) – a peer-reviewed journal of the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) – has reignited the debate.

The paper, which can be accessed at https://lnkd.in/gsqxBUiA concludes that “in the United States, switching from working onsite to working from home can reduce up to 58% of work’s carbon footprint, and the impacts of IT usage are negligible, while office energy use and non-commute travel impacts are important”. 

 

PNAS survey

 

The study says that achieving the environmental benefits of remote work requires proper setup of people’s lifestyle, including their vehicle choice, travel behaviour, and the configuration of home and work environment.”

It’s a fascinating insight into the topic, backed up by hard independent research and evidence. The study calculated the impact of WFH frequency from 0 to 5 days a week on carbon emissions, taking into account commuting, non-commuting travel (e.g. driving to buy lunch if you WFH), office energy, home energy and ICT energy. And it found that, by moving to 2 days a week at home, carbon usage can be reduced by 11%, to 4 days by 29% and to 5 days a week by a staggering 58%. These benefits were mainly realised from less commuting and closing offices. 

Stanford Professor and leading commentator on the WFH revolution Nick Bloom commented “we know commuting is energy intensive, but only after reading this did I realise offices are also huge energy users. For firms, this highlights how a supportive WFH policy can deliver progress on climate objectives. Indeed, these effects are so large that WFH policies are likely to be one of the most powerful tools for companies trying to reduce their carbon footprint.”

Could Work From Home Tap Into A Vast Group Of People Who Are Currently Not Working?

Over 2.5 million people claim incapacity benefit in the UK. The government recently announced action to drastically reduce this number by over a million – described as “a blitz” by the Daily Mail. In early September, the Work & Pensions Secretary, Mel Stride, suggested that many of the claimants will be able to work if they have no other option.

The government proposals sparked a backlash from disability groups, with the MS Society saying they would ‘create worry, fear and the real threat of major financial loss’.

The new measures sound tough. Anyone who remembers the Ken Loach film ‘I, Daniel Blake’ will know that the British system of unemployment and incapacity benefits can seem like a minefield. Nobody truly wants to have to navigate their way through this bureaucracy.

But there are a couple of very specific details in the requirements for incapacity benefit. One is the ability to walk – or move a wheelchair – more than 50 metres without help. Another is focused on anxiety and the ability to work with other people.

So there are both physical and mental health measures that could be dramatically alleviated if people can work from home. The government has noticed this and suggested that if they introduce new supportive measures then a large number of people being signed off work could start working again.

This article is not judging the government, or the people claiming incapacity benefit, however there is a very interesting point here. The government has noticed that working from home may be far easier for a group of people with specific disabilities – compared to getting them to find a job in a factory or office.

At Sensée, we have argued this point for many years. Working from home is naturally more inclusive. It can give any company a boost if they have never really focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion before.

If someone suffers anxiety in the workplace, because a large number of people are around, then working alone from home is far more comfortable. If they suffer from mobility issues that make a regular commute difficult – or even impossible – then working from home will be easier. In fact, a wheelchair user is likely to have converted many aspects of their home to make mobility easier.

The British government isn’t changing their approach to incapacity benefit because they want to improve their Environmental, Social, and corporate Governance (ESG) scores – they just want to reduce the cost of paying out those benefits to people who are not working. 

However, companies that want to improve their own approach to inclusion could follow the lead of the government by exploring how they can offer flexible work-from-home jobs to people that have often been excluded from the traditional workforce.

This flexibility and opportunity can extend beyond physical and mental health issues. Parents of young children may want to offer their skills to the right employer, but they need flexibility. The same applies to adults that are caring for an adult relative. 

This also applies to people that have retired, but would love to do something useful with the knowledge they have built up over a lifetime. Someone with decades of experience working in a retail bank branch is unlikely to ever consider going to work in a contact centre even if the role is helping people with financial advice. If they can manage their own hours and work from home then this is suddenly a possibility.

Although the tone of the Daily Mail story is essentially negative, what the government is actually doing is highlighting that a large number of people are excluded from work today because they want flexible hours and the ability to work from home without commuting.

It will not suit some people, but for many the opportunity to work from home and earn a real salary again could be a lifeline. The government just needs to be sensitive to who it does and doesn’t work for and how to support them in the transition from incapacity benefit to working from home.

Shining a spotlight on all these other groups of people excluded from the traditional workplace could actually be a positive outcome from the government reforms.

There are employers out there that offer flexible working hours and the ability to stay at home. Sensée has always operated this way, but it is becoming more common. Many more employers are finding that there is an enormous pool of untapped talent out there, they just need some flexibility and then they are ready to jump back into the world of work.