What Will An ‘Acceptable Professional’ Eventually Look Like When Working-From-Home?

2020 was a challenge, even for those who didn’t face a healthcare emergency. For many people it not only involved an adjustment to working from home, but also a dramatic shift in social norms and values. Zoom has become a verb in the past year and virtual happy hours have been an unlikely respite from the crisis.

But what about 2021? Picture the situation, you’re trying to impress a new client, or you are on a review call with your boss, or even a job interview. But now that you are working from home (WFH) you are struggling to come across as the professional you want to be seen as.

Maybe your broadband keeps cutting in and out or your cat keeps walking in front of the camera? Your dog is barking because there is a delivery at the front door, or your kids are home-schooling and creating a lot more noise than studying kids should really be creating. Is your presentation affecting your chances of that new job or new contract?

These are unprecedented times. Values have been changing quickly, just look at how unusual it is to see anyone wearing a tie today. Everyone is aware of the difficulties of working from home, especially for those who have been suddenly forced into this situation by the pandemic.

But this will not always be the case. It is now more than a year since most office-based professionals needed to move into a WFH environment. The noisy kids and rogue cats were easily tolerated in May 2020, but by May 2021 everyone has had a long period to adjust.

As we exit the lockdowns many people will return to their office. Some will choose to continue in a WFH environment and some will be asked by their company to stay at home. There will be a change in attitude as some normality returns.

If you are migrating from the office to a permanent WFH environment then I doubt that people will always be so forgiving in future. It is no longer an emergency situation or something forced upon unwilling employees. If you are choosing to remain at home then you need to start considering what does an acceptable professional WFH environment really look like?

For important meetings, clients will not expect to see people in hoodies, at kitchen tables, with pets and poor connectivity. The flexibility and casualness that we all experienced during the midst of the pandemic will start to dissolve as we all have a choice to project a more professional image.

As WFH becomes more of a choice than a necessity, and companies break down the barriers between office-based and WFH employees, I believe that expectations of WFH professionalism will unquestionably increase. And while it’s unlikely that companies will issue a rule book, WFH employees might want to review:

  • What they wear
  • Their video background
  • Background noise
  • Timekeeping
  • Tone of communication
  • Connectivity
  • Privacy
  • Health and safety
  • Security
  • Communications equipment

It’s great news that so many people are being vaccinated now and 2021 holds the promise of some normality. For those who choose to remain at home, just take a moment to think about how to project yourself because (hopefully) this crisis should now be in the past.

Work-from-home can be more effective and productive than office-based working

As we emerge from lockdown, it’s the perfect time for company boards to review their homeworking experiences and ask ‘What part will it play in the workplace of the future?’

No-one is claiming that homeworking is a panacea and it’s not for everyone. However, for many organisations with long term homeworking strategies, it’s delivered huge cost and productivity benefits, as well as massive employee benefits – such as the removal of travel-to-work costs and a better work-life-balance*.

So now is the time to have a practical debate about homeworking…. and it should start by assessing what form of homeworking, and what operating model, is best suited to your requirements. It’s not always just a choice between working 100% from home or 100% from the office.

Below are a number of recent market survey results that support this view of the efficacy of homeworking:

  • 66% of all employed U.S. workers say they can be effective when working remotely, according to the LinkedIn Workforce Confidence Index survey**. The same survey found that 85% of HR professionals say they can be effective with work from home (WFH).
  • The 2020 UK HomeAgent Study*, the UK’s largest ever study into long term contact centre homeworking, revealed that more and more UK centres are turning to homeworking as they discover its financial and productivity benefits. When comparing work-at-home with office-based contact centres, 75 per cent of organisations responding to the survey said that Attrition is lower, 61 per cent said Productivity is better, and 54 per cent said Absenteeism is better. As well as delivering significant advantages to businesses, homeworking is also delivering huge benefits to contact centre ‘HomeAgents’. 74 per cent said that they have a better work-life-balance, 86 per cent that they have no travel-to-work costs, and 81 per cent that they have removed the time wasted travelling to work.
  • A Glassdoor study*** showed that 60% of people feel they can perform effectively no matter how long they have to WFH. 50% say they are as, or more, productive remote working.
  • An online poll of contact centre professionals**** revealed that 47 per cent of organisations that introduced homeworking in response to the Coronavirus crisis now see it as a long term strategy.

References:

* The 2020 UK HomeAgent Survey was conducted between November 2019 and the middle of March 2020, prior to the Covid-19 lockdown in the UK. It was managed/published by the UK Contact Centre Forum (UKCCF) and sponsored by Content Guru, Sensée and SYKES. 300 Managers/Directors and HomeAgents took part in the study

** June 2020. LinkedIn’s Workforce Confidence Index is based on a quantitative online survey that is distributed to members via email every two weeks. Roughly 5,000+ U.S.-based members respond to each wave

*** COVID-19 & Employee Sentiment on Changing Workforce, March 2020

**** The poll was conducted by Sensée in conjunction with the UKCCF, South West Contact Centre Forum and Call North West in April, May and June 2020 amongst a total of 203 UK contact centre professionals

 

The Post Pandemic Contact Centre Will Never be the Same

Covid-19sign1-990000079e04513cOne of the most challenging things in customer experience delivery today is the ever-shifting commercial environment. The industry has weathered many storms over the past two decades, but these can appear tempests in teapots relative to the past 10 weeks.

Let no one be fooled. Contact centres will not go back to the way they were at the start of 2020. At least not for a very long time. Rather, businesses must take a more virtual approach to delivery, one that favours remote working that is compliant and seamless.

Yes, this is a sea change, and experience tells us that few people like any type of transformation. But, in this case, embracing the work-at-home shift will mean the difference between contact centre viability and obsolescence.

By 2018, industry analyst ContactBabel estimated that 26 per cent of UK contact centres were deploying home-based advisors.

Over the past 20 years,contact centres have made it through some murky waters. Consider the uncertainty surrounding the global financial crisis in 2008 / 2009, and the concern about whether consumer activity would dry up, thus sinking the need for large scale customer experience operations.
Or, what of the various societal upheavals, natural disasters or disruptions to infrastructure that have pressured customer experience business continuity? While these tested the mettle of contact centre professionals in their own way, each pales into insignificance in comparison to what our industry has faced with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The work-at-home contact centre model is actually far from new. The AA, for example, operated home-based contact centres in the UK since the 1990s and Sensée, the UK’s first contact centre employer of 100% home-based, fully-employed HomeAgents, was established in 2004. By 2018, industry analyst ContactBabel estimated that 26 per cent of UK contact centres were deploying home-based advisors.

Since the onset of the pandemic in March, however, the scale of the agent shift from bricks-and-mortar to work-at-home contact centres has been unprecedented. By April 2020, ContactBabel estimates that a massive 84 per cent of UK contact centres were mainly operating on a work-from-home basis.

The shift of agents to supporting consumers from their homes may have been taken as a short term measure, but its impact now looks like it will be long lasting.

Why is this?

Well, there are a number of compelling reasons. Take for one agent performance. Something that comes up time and again with contact centres that have moved their workforce home is that team members become more productive, and provide better results than those previously achieved in bricks and mortar facilities. This counts a lot in an era where cementing the loyalty of end-users is more important than ever.

Moving even a portion of the workforce home on a semi-permanent basis should not be underestimated, both in terms of effort and expertise.

Another reason is agent satisfaction. While it is important to recognise that home working is not for everyone, and that some people will perform better in an office environment than at-home, for others it is a perfect fit.

Across the UK contact centre space, more and more agents are stating a preference to work from their homes, even if it is for just part of their working week. Why? For some, it is down to the work-life-balance benefits that homeworking offers, for others it is because homeworking removes the hassle and expense of commuting. For a significant proportion, however, it is because they cannot (or cannot easily) access the traditional workplace. In the case of Sensée, 18 per cent of our employees are living with a disability, 8 per cent are carers to people with special needs, and 32% come from rural disaffected areas.

That said, moving even a portion of the workforce home on a semi-permanent basis should not be underestimated, both in terms of effort and expertise. Ideally, enterprises should work with specialist homeworking partners that understand the homeworking dynamic and can take a strategic view of their business model. This is no time for learning on the job. Enterprises across industries will face massive workforce management challenges alongside those related to securing consumer loyalty in a digitally-secure fashion. Homeworking has the potential to address both these elements, but can only succeed with the right expertise.

How Will Your Contact Centre Teams Cope With The Festive Season Retail Peak?

(Reprinted courtesy of Internet Retailing magazine)

Scaling up operations to meet seasonal retail peak is always a tricky task but especially so this year. When it comes to planning for Black Friday and the 2020 Festive Season, not only will retailers have to increase capacity to cope with greater online activity but also comply with social distancing regulations in-store as traffic volumes grow.

Ensuring people’s safety while securing much-needed sales growth will be a difficult balancing act, and not just for retail store owners. It’s going to be a major problem for retail contact centres too.

In the online space in particular, increased sales will necessitate extra support personnel who are experienced and trained in understanding the end-to-end customer journey. Their role in using digital customer experience tools to support customers and avoid abandoned online shopping baskets will be vital.  

Ensuring people’s safety while securing much-needed sales growth will be a difficult balancing act, and not just for retail store owners. It’s going to be a major problem for retail contact centres too.

The challenge for contact centre managers is how to acquire these additional heads. Because of the need for social distancing and staggered rotas, it won’t be possible to fit more people into existing retail contact centres. A different approach will be required.

In previous years, retailers often turned to third party ‘bricks and mortar’ service outsourcers to make up the numbers. For this Festive Season peak, however, even that could be tricky. Traditional outsourced contact centre operators are subject to the same social distancing regulations as retailers themselves, so rapidly scaling up numbers will be difficult.

The only realistic answer to this unprecedented customer service dilemma will be for retailers to hire homeworkers.    

Work-from-Home 

Work-from-home (or WFH) has become the new normal for customer service operators over the past few months with a massive 84% of contact centres mainly operating on a WFH basis according to industry research from ContactBabel/Channel Doctors in April 2020.

The switch from bricks and mortar to virtual has not, however, been without its issues. When 156 UK contact centre professionals were asked about their biggest homeworking challenges in an April/May/June 2020 poll, 23 per cent said Pastoral Care (i.e. isolation/mental health), 23 per cent Motivation/Productivity, 20 per cent Telephony/Technology Services, 11 per cent Staff Management, and 10 per cent Communication with Remote Workers.  Training, IT Security, and Recruitment challenges were also identified.  Only 2 per cent of respondents thought that they Had Homeworking Nailed.  Despite these challenges, over 50 per cent of UK contact centres said that they were now looking at homeworking as part of their longer term strategy.      

So while homeworking is now a necessity it must be approached cautiously and managed effectively.  

For many people, switching to WFH during lockdown simply meant leaving the office with a computer and a phone and setting up from home.  Not so running a highly process-driven and team-oriented customer service operation.  To achieve excellence in running a WFH customer service team calls for a very different mindset that starts with learning how to recruit the right homeworkers and extends to creating a virtual mindset across everything from training, planning, managing and reporting…… within a technology ecosystem that is secure, robust and flexible enough to scale up and down with your business needs.

The pressure to find a practical service solution for the Festive Season retail peak is greater than ever.  Yet the skills required to effectively manage WFH teams can’t be learnt overnight.  The skills, advice and people resources of a professional and experienced WFH customer service operator may just be what is required. 

Could homeworking work for you?

(Republished courtesy of disability magazine UCAN2 www.ucan2magazine.co.uk)

The current Coronavirus (Covid-19) crisis has brought homeworking into sharp reality for millions of office workers. But is it a viable route into the workplace for many living with a disability?

The idea of homeworking as an option for disabled people is nothing new. Scope, for example, provides extensive support and advice https://www.scope.org.uk/advice-and-support/homeworking/ on the topic.

What has changed recently are two key things. First, there’s now a massive focus on homeworking within the boardroom – both as a disaster recovery response (with the Coronavirus already closing down transport links and forcing some office closures), and as a longer term option on productivity/ cost grounds. Second, the homeworking industry has moved on……. with more effective homeworking models, and a realisation within Corporates that homeworking is a ‘proper’ job, where people can develop rewarding careers.

The contact centre sector is a case in point. 15 years ago, few companies considered it possible to run an effective operation using homeworkers because of a multitude of technology, HR and operational issues. With experience, many of these HR and operational issues have now been resolved, and specialist virtual workplace tools – with virtual training Homeworking advisorenvironments, specialist real-time communications, and real-time management – today provide managers with real-time visibility of homeworkers so they can support and collaborate as required.

Indeed we estimate that 18% of our colleagues have some form of disability, and a further 8% are carers to people with special needs.

In the past, homeworkers were frequently either managers and top performing employees offered homeworking ‘as a reward’ or self-employed people required to create their own limited companies before supplying services. Today, homeworkers are now more likely to choose to work from home and be more experienced.

Indeed, according to the 2016 UKCCF Contact Centre Homeworking Survey, 74 per cent of homeworkers are aged 35 or over, and 66% have over 10 years experience in customer contact roles.

They also come into homeworking for a wide variety of reasons – and our company is a good example. We currently have 700 fully-employed homeworkers who deliver services for Allianz, BUPA, Hastings Direct and others. Amongst our people are work-at-home mums, many who find working in an office stressful, and others that are excluded from the normal workplace. This includes people who live in rural areas or are simply too far from the office to commute, as well as many living with a disability. Indeed we estimate that 18% of our colleagues have some form of disability, and a further 8% are carers to people with special needs.

According to the UKCCF survey, 92 per cent of homeworkers say that they are happy (at least some of the time), and 72 per cent say they are proud to tell people where they work.

The secret to providing excellent work-from-home opportunities is to ensure that everyone is treated equally and fairly, and that engagement, community and socialisation is part and parcel of the homeworking experience. Technology plays a key role here too, ensuring that teams communicate and interact efficiently and that working from home isn’t a solitary experience (unless someone wants it to be!)

Implemented effectively and homeworking can provide not only a route back into the workplace but also a fulfilling career. According to the UKCCF survey, 92 per cent of homeworkers say that they are happy (at least some of the time), and 72 per cent say they are proud to tell people where they work. As for companies, 78 per cent of organisations employing homeworkers said they expected to increase numbers in the next 12 months.

 

 

Sensée is in regular contact with organisations that support the disabled community, is a Purple Member, supports the Armed Forces Covenant, is Disability Confident Committed, and is registered with Employers for Carers.

Practical advice and tips on working from home

“Now is the time for everyone to stop non-essential contact with others” said Boris Johnson on Monday (16th March) “and to stop all unnecessary travel. We need people to start working from home where they possibly can…. and avoid pubs, clubs, theatres and other such social venues.” On 18th March, it was announced that all UK schools would be closed ‘until further notice’.

We are in dangerous and uncertain times and few would argue with the logic of the Prime Minister’s statement. However, there’s a lot more to homeworking than simply picking up a laptop and a phone from the office and setting up from home.

Homeworking advice

If you google flexible working tips or homeworking tips or even Coronavirus work-from-home tips you’ll find plenty of helpful advice.

On 11th March, for example, The Chartered Institute of Personnel Development issued a factsheet to help businesses support their operations and workforce. ACAS too offers plenty of useful advice, drilling down into much finer detail about what Employers should consider before embarking on their homeworking journey.

Both organisations are communicating a very similar message: that you need to plan for homeworking. In a section within its factsheet entitled Develop flexible resourcing plans the CIPD recommends developing “strategies to maximise the amount of home working to prevent the spread of infection”.

Similarly in the ACAS guidance, the author sounds a note of caution: “One of the first steps for an employer is to consider whether the job is suitable for homeworking or teleworking. Many roles may be, but others may not. And while homeworking can be seen as an attractive option, it will not suit everyone. A homeworker needs to be able to cope with working on their own with little supervision.”

Plan ahead

So having a homeworking strategy is essential. When considering whether a job is suitable for homeworking, ACAS asks Employers to consider whether the role needs “team working, face-to-face supervision, equipment (installed in the home) or equipment (which can only be in the organisation’s central base).” And it suggests homeworkers ideally need to be “able to spend long periods on their own, confident working without supervision, self-disciplined and self-motivated, and able to separate work from home life.”

Is this overkill when all we’re talking about here is people working at home for a few weeks until the Coronavirus sombrero is squashed? Absolutely not!

For certain job roles and functions, switching to homeworking and doing so with scalability and cost-efficiency is highly complex.

Front and Back Office Functions

Take back or front office functions, such as your customer contact centre. It’s highly unlikely that your office-based contact centre agents can just up sticks with a computer and a phone, set up from home and carry on business-as-usual.

The demands of contact centre working means that a complete 360 degree solution is required that provides full visibility, control, engagement, and of course information security. And if an organisation is looking to operate a 100% homeworking model in the longer term, it will need to master an even broader range of skills: from recruiting the right homeworkers, to adapting a virtual mindset when it comes to training, management, scheduling, security, communication and technology.   These are not skills that can be learnt overnight.

If used as a short-term measure in the contact centre, organisations won’t have the luxury of trialling concepts and refining their work-at-home model over time.  They may have time to turn to an experienced outsourcer that uses a home-based model, adopt some specialist technology tools, or seek the advice of a homeworking consultant – but any medium or long term planning really won’t be feasible.

Here are six things to consider if you are thinking of introducing contact centre homeworking in response to Coronavirus:

  1. Communications: Pay attention to all aspects of communication. Not just company announcements but communication within teams, and real time support for advisors that may be experiencing difficulties (using virtual technologies, instant messaging etc.).
  2. Team Managers: Don’t ignore the crucial role they play in providing support and guidance. If possible, use technology to enable and deploy a system of virtual floorwalkers.
  3. Technology Support: If homeworkers are using company equipment (computers, phones), ensure you can support this equipment effectively.
  4. Appropriate Office Space: Ensure homeworkers can work from a suitable office in the home. Working and making calls from the living room with kids playing in the background, or dogs barking, just isn’t acceptable!
  5. Scheduling: Add greater flexibility into your planning schedules – such as split shifts and micro-shifts. This will enable homeworkers to fit work in around their other daily priorities (such as taking the kids to school or caring for a relative) while helping your organisation better match resources to daily peaks and troughs.
  6. Security: Consider adding extra security measures – such as restricting homeworker access to certain customer data. Also ensure you are not breaching your obligations under FCA, GDPR and other regulations.  And ensure company equipment is adequately insured for home use.

With the Government strongly suggesting that people work from home it would be good to see more advice on how organisations can do so most effectively – and avoid the pitfalls. With the expertise available, and specialist technology tools that now exist, that advice could make all the difference.

As a response to the current crisis, homeworking can deliver a more dispersed workforce with a lower single point of failure, and hence a lower risk of cross infection.  This will enable contact centres to operate as normal even if other business functions need to close down.

NI Executive Ministers announce unique 300 job investment by Sensée

Pictured (L-R) are Kevin Holland, CEO, Invest NI with deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, Minister for the Economy Diane Dodds, First Minister Arlene Foster and Rob Smale, Director, Sensée.
Pictured (L-R) are Kevin Holland, CEO, Invest NI with deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, Minister for the Economy Diane Dodds, First Minister Arlene Foster and Rob Smale, Director, Sensée

The First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill today announced 300 home based jobs in a multi-million pound investment by Sensée.

They were joined in making the announcement by Economy Minister Diane Dodds.

“The home-based work opportunities span a range of roles, including agent, manager and support levels, contributing over £5.8 million in additional salaries to our economy.” — First Minister Foster

This first-time investment into Northern Ireland by the company will see the creation of 300 work from home contact centre roles. The jobs will also provide a unique opportunity for those facing barriers to work as a result of location, personal or family circumstances.

First Minister Foster said: “We are delighted today to announce 300 new jobs for Northern Ireland. Uniquely these are not limited by geography, they are accessible to everyone no matter where they live.

“The home-based work opportunities span a range of roles, including agent, manager and support levels, contributing over £5.8 million in additional salaries to our economy.

“As an Executive we are committed to strengthening our economy and commend Invest Northern Ireland for their work to secure this significant investment.”

“We offer the security of full employment contracts with guaranteed hours and with flexibility to choose workdays and times.” — Rob Smale, Sensée Director

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said: “We are committed to working together to bring about prosperity for all our people. Creating employment opportunities is an important part of this, as is working to remove the barriers faced by many people to get into employment. This includes people with disabilities or caring responsibilities.

“These new jobs with Sensée provide a real option for people right across the north who will benefit from home working and give them an opportunity to get in to paid work and improve their quality of life.

“Invest NI has offered £900,000 of support towards the jobs, which the company intends to create by 2022 as it continues to grow its business.”

Sensée works with many well-known brands, including Bupa, Hastings Direct and Allianz, providing service and support for their customers.

Economy Minister, Diane Dodds said: “The contact centre industry is experiencing a lot of change and the home working model is gaining traction with more companies. As well as offering flexible working for staff this approach benefits the environment including reduced energy use and costs. It will also open up rural communities providing employment opportunities for those not able to travel to work. These benefits directly align with many of our Programme for Government objectives.”

Sensée is looking to fill the 300 positions over the coming months. Recruitment and training are both completed on-line and candidates can apply online.

Rob Smale, Sensée Director, said: “Our skilled home based service advisor team work for well-known brands on an outsourced basis, either as continuously available resources or to handle peaks in customer demand. Currently we employ about 700 staff across the UK, all of whom work from home.

“We offer the security of full employment contracts with guaranteed hours and with flexibility to choose workdays and times. There’s also no commuting, saving our people time and money, and a social element that creates great teamwork and companionship.

“Our home based advisor services are also attractive to businesses in all sectors, from healthcare to financial services and retail, with the great attitude of our homeworking team providing excellent customer service. It also reduces the carbon footprint and aligns with their corporate social responsibility aspirations.”

Sensée is looking to fill the 300 positions over the coming months. Recruitment and training are both completed on-line and candidates can apply at www.sensee.co.uk/ni-jobs

Struggling to recruit the right contact centre people? Try homeworking

Business woman planning in front of a whiteboard
The key for enterprises that want to focus on consumer retention is fresh thinking around the traditional way of doing business

Let’s face it. Running a contact centre has become more confusing, complex and challenging, even for the seasoned enterprise professional. With more demands from consumers across a multitude of channels, alongside the need for different technologies and compliance requirements, ensuring end-user loyalty in an efficient manner has never been more difficult. But it need not be that way, provided the right business model is in place, one that leverages the best people, platforms and processes.

One of the core areas of any business model must be ‘People’. Operating a home-based agent model, we are fortunate because we can attract an abundance of top-quality applicants interested in pursuing a home-based contact centre career.

Team members can choose the campaign that they want to work on, helping create a highly experienced and engaged workforce… which equates to better service for our clients and their customers.

A home-based model offers our people the ability to work anywhere in the UK, in a way that suits their lifestyles while providing full-time employment and a full set of benefits to ensure team members’ financial stability. This has a major and positive impact on driving down attrition. Moreover, team members can choose the campaign that they want to work on, helping create a highly experienced and engaged workforce… which equates to better service for our clients and their customers.

Our experience contrasts sharply with those of many bricks-and-mortar contact centres, which often have great difficulty finding a strong base of applicants. In the current near full-employment UK economy, many struggle to retain the talent that they have. With due respect for the traditional contact centre model, the target agent profile is under heavy demand from not only customer experience providers but from other sectors, such as hospitality, travel & leisure, retail and front-line financial services. Combined with recent increases in the minimum wage, it is little wonder that good agents for bricks-and-mortar contact centres are harder to find and costs are increasing!

As a home-based contact centre, we can avoid these pressure points. Our recruits are drawn to customer service as a career. They like working from home; it fits their lifestyles. And because we recruit from across the whole UK – not from a finite pool of labour, typically within a fifteen mile radius of a ‘traditional’ contact centre – we do not experience the regional workforce pressures that many operators do in contact centre hotspots like Manchester, South Yorkshire, South Wales, Glasgow and the North East.

I believe that 2020 represents a great opportunity for business whilst operationally being a challenging time for customer experience delivery.

The virtual model allows home-based contact centre operators to focus on pulling in specific skill sets that would otherwise be very tough to recruit for in a traditional contact centre. We are able to better serve clients across sectors by attracting agents with specific experience, higher education levels, language capabilities or professional certifications. This results in a higher-touch point between the brands that we represent and the consumers we serve.

I believe that 2020 represents a great opportunity for business whilst operationally being a challenging time for customer experience delivery. The key for enterprises that want to focus on consumer retention is fresh thinking around the traditional way of doing business. Embracing new operating models that concurrently deliver the best results alongside efficiencies that can be passed back to the client.  As consumers, we continue to grow more discerning than ever, and Sensée’s virtual approach is designed to exceed expectations.

Is homeworking part of your Coronavirus Business Continuity Plan?

Closeup shot of a young man hanging up a closed sign in a shop window

Is your business prepared for the unexpected?

Take the current Coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak.  At the time of writing, 14th February 2020, just nine people have tested positive for coronavirus and the risk to individuals is currently considered ‘low’.

Yet the World Health Organisation has declared the situation a “public health emergency of international concern” with The Foreign and Commonwealth Office issuing daily updates, including travel advice to and from various geographies.  In late January 2020, Chinese officials heightened concerns by pointing to evidence that transmission could occur during the viruses’ incubation period (i.e. in the days before people become visibly ill) or amongst carriers who never get sick.

Currently, travellers arriving from Wuhan or Hubei Province (or elsewhere in China if they have symptoms) are being advised to stay at home for 14 days and avoid public places.  But what if those travel restrictions were extended and really started to impact our daily lives.  For instance, if travel restrictions meant we couldn’t travel to the office, or to face-to-face meetings?

It’s not that far-fetched.  A recent Forbes article points to several global businesses including Starbucks, KFC, Pizza Hut, and McDonald’s that have closed stores, closed offices and introduced Work-at-Home policies.

Is that an option your business has considered?

Is Work-at-Home possible?

When it comes to the spread of diseases, highly populated business operations are clearly a major concern.  And especially so given that Coronavirus carriers won’t necessarily exhibit symptoms and can therefore, in theory, infect a large number of people very quickly.

If your people work in people-heavy operations like factories, goods delivery depots or retail stores home working isn’t an option.  But if they work in others, such as contact centres or back office admin functions, where the main ‘physical tools’ of their trade are a desk, a phone and a computer, then it could make a great deal of sense.  In theory at least…….

Not as simple as it sounds!

Ask any organisation that has introduced contact centre homeworking (or HomeAgent working) and I’m sure they’ll tell you the same thing: you can get a homeworker up and running easily enough from a technology and HR perspective, but getting a HomeAgent operation running effectively is a completely different matter.

In short, operational effectiveness in homeworking calls for a completely different mindset across everything that your business does: from recruiting the right homeworkers, to adapting a virtual mindset when it comes to training, management, scheduling, security, communication and technology.   And these are not skills that can be learnt overnight.  The skills, knowledge and operational excellence required to operate a HomeAgent operation can take years to master, with organisations often making many mistakes along the way.

If homeworking is used as a short-term measure, for example in the contact centre context discussed above, organisations won’t have the luxury of trialling concepts and refining their model over time.  The only options will be to work with an experienced outsourcer that uses a home-based model.   Or indeed just get on with it themselves.

Six Considerations

If you are considering the latter as part of a Business Continuity Plan for your contact centre personnel, here are six considerations:

  1. Communications: Ensure that you pay particular attention to all aspects of communication. Not just company announcements but communication within teams, and real time support for advisors that may be experiencing difficulties (using virtual technologies, instant messaging etc.).
  2. Team Manager Role: Don’t ignore the crucial role of the Team Manager providing support and guidance. If possible, use technology to enable and deploy a system of virtual floorwalkers.
  3. Technology Support: If homeworkers are using company equipment (computers, phones) to conduct their work, ensure that you can support this equipment effectively.
  4. Appropriate Office Space: Ensure that homeworkers are able to work from a suitable office in the home. Working and making calls from the living room with kids playing in the background, or dogs barking, just isn’t acceptable!
  5. Planning and scheduling: Use the opportunity of homeworking to add greater flexibility into your planning schedules – such as split shifts and micro-shifts (i.e. shifts of an hour or less). This will enable homeworkers to fit work in around their other daily priorities (such as taking the kids to school or caring for a relative) while helping your organisation better match resources to daily peaks and troughs.
  6. Security: If you are moving away from a highly secure office environment, you may wish to add extra security measures – such as restricting homeworker access to certain customer data. Also ensure that you are not breaching your obligations under FCA, GDPR and other regulations.  And ensure company equipment is adequately insured for home use.

These are just a few thoughts.  If you have other concerns, consult an expert with direct experience of contact centre homeworking.

Whether you are looking at homeworking as a short-term fix, or a long-term strategy, remember that it isn’t for everyone.  Get it right, however, and it can deliver huge advantages in terms of a better work-life-balance for your employees and financial benefits for your business.  According to a major 2016 HomeAgent survey, for example, 42% of organisations reported lower attrition, 58% lower absenteeism, and 46% higher productivity as a result of homeworking.

As a response to the current Coronavirus issue, homeworking will, in theory, deliver a more dispersed workforce with a lower single point of failure, and hence a lower risk of cross infection.  This will enable your contact centre to operate as normal even if other business functions need to close down.

Ethical values at the heart of Sensée’s delivery

Real living wage graphic
The real living wage is up to 30% higher than the national living wage set by the UK government and is independently assessed to make sure it provides enough for employees to live on.

Over a long career in outsourcing, I have seen many changes. How we do business as providers of front-line services has little resemblance to even a decade ago. One of the things that strikes me is the need for outsourcers to be proactive around fostering a more inclusive workplace, an approach that benefits the agent in tandem with the client whose services or products they are representing. This aligns with ensuring that environmental responsibilities are taken seriously, and not just paid lip-service. I am proud to say that Sensée is committed to ethical delivery, and we are already taking the needed steps to be a British provider of choice in this regard.

“One of the things that strikes me is the need for outsourcers to be proactive around fostering a more inclusive workplace.”

People are a good starting point for this discussion. After all, human resources count for over 70% of contact centre operations in the UK, so it just makes sense to ensure that front-line team members are happy and motivated. And because workplace uncertainty is so pervasive, at Sensée we want our agents to feel as financially secure as possible. This is why we pay our team members a real living wage, in order to remove the uncertainty that comes with so many other jobs in the current marketplace. There are no zero-hour contracts at Sensée — this way of working only drives low morale. When somebody joins our team, they do so with the understanding that they can count on a steady income, one that includes benefits, holidays and pension.

“There are no zero-hour contracts at Sensée — this way of working only drives low morale.”

Smiling young disabled woman in a wheelchair
Around 30% of our team are either registered as disabled or care for someone at home, a figure far above the national average.

But, at Sensée remuneration is only a part of the agent equation. Anybody that knows the contact centre industry realises that working conditions greatly influences how well a team performs. This is why we have worked to ensure that our workforce across the UK is able to take full advantage of their virtual status. Agents can map their skills and interests to the client campaign that they choose to work on. This immediately means more engagement with the role (and customer) at hand. Consider, too, that among those seeking to work for Sensée, the lack of a daily commute is a real selling point. Anyone who has been caught on the motorway or the train during rush-hour can relate to this. The Sensée ethos is based on inclusiveness, and we are proud to be an employer of choice for individuals who may have reduced mobility, have mental health challenges, have carer responsibilities, live in rurally isolated communities, or who simply do not want to work traditional shifts in a Bricks and Mortar environment.

“we are proud to be an employer of choice for individuals who may have reduced mobility, have mental health challenges, have carer responsibilities, live in rurally isolated communities, or who simply do not want to work traditional shifts.”

The net result of our ethically driven workplace practices is a team of highly engaged agents who are ready to serve consumers above and beyond. The numbers speak for themselves. Our annual attrition is around 10%, well below that found in traditional outsourced operations. And with sickness levels under 3% per annum, it validates that our agents enjoy coming to work.

This goes hand-in-hand with our commitment to the environment. With business more worried about the climate than ever before, it is important for customer experience to be done with a green approach. Therefore, Sensée’s work-at-home virtual model is more relevant now than ever. Keeping agents off the roads, allowing them to work from their homes, delivering high-quality service means that we are operating with a carbon footprint that is 90% lower than an equivalent sized bricks-and-mortar operation. Our clients love this, and it has been a great morale booster for our agents who are very worried about the ongoing climate change crisis.

“we are operating with a carbon footprint that is 90% lower than an equivalent sized bricks-and-mortar operation.”

Ethical contact centre delivery does not need to be hard — it simply makes sense. Sensée is leading the market with this approach to customer experience delivery, and it continues to be received positively by agents and clients alike. I believe that this approach is the right one for 2020 and beyond.