Are we forgetting about the customer in the man-machine debate?

Ever since ChatGPT was launched at the end of 2022 there are many commentators who have not stopped talking about the opportunities presented by artificial intelligence (AI). If AI can answer all customer questions then why would organisations need real people in their service operations? 

The truth, of course, is that there are many reasons why customer support offered by humans could be superior to even the smartest AI systems. For example: 

  • Many customers just don’t want to engage with a robot – they want to talk to a person. And, because they are paying for the service, their opinion should count. 
  • The customer has a detailed problem that has never been encountered before – the AI will only be able to help where it has been trained on complex solutions.  
  • The customer has a problem that’s hard to describe without demonstrating it. Sometimes several factors combine to create a specific problem – like a customer locked out of their account with an old phone number registered on their account – so they can’t receive a reset code. It can be tricky explaining a step-by-step problem that has multiple issues to a bot. 
  • The customer needs the support and empathy of a human interaction – a customer claiming on a life insurance policy after the death of a family member is unlikely to find much empathy engaging with a bot. 
  • The customer needs immediate and urgent help – they just missed a flight and need to quickly find an alternative and get a boarding pass for this alternate flight. 

These are all scenarios where human interactions will work better than automation for the forseeable future.  

However, one must also accept that customer journeys are changing and automated service getting better and better. It is highly likely that the first place a customer now turns for help is Google or their smart speaker. If you are trying to find why your new laptop isn’t working correctly a Google search is probably the first port of call and interacting with an AI-powered bot provided by the laptop manufacturer a sensible next step. 

But YouTube videos and bots are not going to resolve every problem, and as the examples above demonstrate, there are still many occasions where a customer service interaction could theoretically be automated, but it makes far more sense to maintain a human connection. 

There is an AI gap developing between what customers want and what many companies think is optimal or acceptable. Look at the 2024 Liveperson ‘State of Customer Conversations’ research. They found that 50% of customers are positive about engaging with a brand using AI. However, 91% of executives are positive about using AI to engage with their customers. This will eventually develop into a problem – some customers are happy to use bots, but almost all companies want to push harder on automation. 

Some companies are openly talking about how the majority of their customer service interactions are now automated. The buy-now-pay-later service Klarna is a good example. They have stated that two-thirds of customer interactions are now automated.  

This works for Klarna. Their service is focused on an app and it revolves around several distinct actions – there is a small set of questions that customers will ask over and over again. But most services are not like this. We can’t look at the example of an app offering credit and suggest that government departments or large retail brands can quickly achieve the same level of automation. 

Human to human interaction is still quintessential to getting things right, first time.  

Sensée believes this is why UK-based advisers are important for businesses serving customers in the UK. Locally-based support offers a strong cultural connection between the customer service adviser and customer. There is none of the disconnect that becomes possible when customer service is sent to the opposite side of the world. 

The UK has a great service culture and really skilled people. When brands start considering that advisers are experts it can change everything. They can include YouTube explainers and AI chatbots as service options, but always with the backup option of smart well-trained local advisers who know the products inside-out. 

The Sensée approach allows advisers to work securely from home, rather than requiring a commute to a contact centre. This allows us to find exactly the right people for each client – wherever they are located. It also allows us to find a more flexible and diverse team, many of which are excluded from the standard 9-5 office-based workplace. Our advisers are a little older than most customer service teams because we can include parents, carers, and people with responsibilities that would rule them out of long office shifts away from home. 

With flexible planning software and an agile team that can be hired close to UK clients, this really is a solution that we like to call ‘talent on tap.’  

The world is changing. AI is becoming an important tool inside the customer service environment – we are also using AI tools to improve productivity – but most companies still need to offer human advice – not just bots alone. As mentioned, it may also be preferable for some types of business to offer human interactions even where it is technically possible to automate customer engagement. 

Getting this right requires a team that understands flexibility and the true value of highly-skilled advisers. This is where our UK-based team really shines. 

Follow this link for more information on what we are doing to define how customer service can embrace new technologies, but also remain human-focused today. 

For more information about us, and the brands we serve with advisers all based at home, please take a look at our website here

What Will The Customer Service Partner Of The Future Look Like?

What is the future for customer service outsourcing? Sensée has certainly shaken things up in the UK with the purchase of The Contact Company. The acquisition almost doubles our employee base, adds new capabilities, and provides greater flexibility for clients who can now choose from the options of a 100% work-from-home (WFH) team, one based at our secure contact centre in Birkenhead, or a combination of both.  

We can also offer powerful hybrid solutions for clients who prefer to build their own core teams inside the office, but with the support of a flexible WFH or hybrid team to optimise resources in response to forecast (and actual!) customer demand. 

We will talk more about what this means for Sensée in future posts, but how does our ability to offer more flexibility to customers look when contrasted to the market more generally? 

There has certainly been a ‘bigger is better’ approach to business process outsourcing (BPO) in the past year or so. Foundever was created by the merger of SYKES and Sitel. Concentrix and Webhelp are in the process of merging. Teleperformance acquired Majorel. That’s six big global companies that have now merged to become just three.  

The moves have happened at a time when AI is getting better and more powerful, driving greater productivity for customer service advisers by performing many of the manual admin tasks they used to have to manage – like writing up notes after a call for example. AI chatbots are also starting to become useful, after years of arguably being the opposite. 

So there is clearly a view amongst the very largest outsourcing groups that human interactions are still an essential part of the customer service process. When we interact with our favourite brands we often want to talk to a real person. There are many basic services that can be automated, but when a question or request is urgent – or needs empathy – then a bot isn’t the experience that anyone wants, at least not yet anyway. 

So what will the customer service partner of the future really look like in this environment where human experience remains important, but blended alongside automation and self-service? 

We believe that specialist and more flexible partners are needed. Experts in designing customer experiences and focused locally on the markets that they serve. 

We call it having ‘talent on tap’. Having the scale to respond to peaks and troughs in customer contact volumes, but being able to cope with this variability in a smart way – by using technology to predict volumes and plan the right number of people that need to be available. 

Think about it like this. The BPO providers that operate ‘traditional’ aircraft hanger-sized contact centres with thousands of advisers have been like the oil tankers of the industry. Big and unwieldy, demanding multi-year service contracts, and often unable to easily diverge from what has been agreed in a contract. 

This isn’t how customer service planning is going to work moving forward. Nobody can plan how their business will look in 3, 4, or 5 years. So clients need partners that are prepared to work alongside them to provide the scalability and flexibility they demand. 

It’s like contrasting the unchanging British civil service with ChatGPT. One service has not changed in decades and is highly resistant to any rapid change. The other is constantly being reviewed, improved, and updated. 

This is what a modern customer service partner looks like. Agile, flexible, and able to predict how customers might behave next year. Ready to scale and evolve alongside your business. 

We have seen the automation of basic customer service questions over the past few years. It’s very unusual now to ever need to talk to an adviser if you are resetting a password – this has become normal and accepted. Automated services are getting better. AI interactions will only improve this. 

But it will be a long time before AI can answer all customer questions and even when AI can technically manage most customer interactions there will be many occasions when it is preferable to have a human-to-human customer interaction – just to create a connection or demonstrate empathy. Sales opportunities are often created from these service conversations. 

So the customer service partner of the future will be one that embraces the different paths a customer can take to get help. One that can improve your self-service options – including chatbots – as well as provide highly flexible and adaptive human advisers that know your products and services inside out. 

This doesn’t sound like the traditional contact centre services we’ve seen marketed for 20 years or more. The pandemic forced many business process outsourcing companies to explore more flexible options such as variable shifts and working from home. Something that has been entirely normal at Sensée for years – it didn’t take a crisis for us to have to explore them. 

So if your organisation requires a specialist customer service partner, what kind of partner is the best fit? A mature service outsourcer that delivers along traditional lines, or a next generation partner that delivers highly flexible teams to optimise your workforce and technology resources? 

Here at Sensée – and especially since the addition of the bricks and mortar capabilities of The Contact Company – we’re able to deliver the best of both these worlds. A solid and proven outsourced contact centre proposition that’s underpinned by nextgen collaboration, comms, scheduling and management solutions – with AI-driven solutions supporting skilled advisers. And all flexibly delivered via home and office-based resources to match client needs and ensure outsourced and internal teams ‘work as one’.

In essence, a powerful new co-sourced and co-managed delivery proposition…. and a boutique service partner you can trust.

For more information about us, and the brands we serve, please take a look at our website here

Sensée launches Surge emergency response service

Sensée has launched an emergency response service for organisations needing extra trained personnel at short notice to manage spikes in customer contact.

The Sensée Surge service, delivered as an outsourced Customer Experience (CX) service, is aimed at organisations that encounter: 

  • Unexpected weather events that overload their contact centre
  • System outages that create waves of unexpected customer contact
  • Known spikes that occur due to seasonality (but can’t be managed at ‘normal’ staffing levels)

Or any other planned or unplanned sudden increase in customer demand.

The Service can be accessed on either a Retainer basis (i.e. Sensée will put in infrastructure and test, clients simply press the red button when they need people to act) or as a one-off service (i.e. clients can call Sensée for support and have a first group “active in 24 hours). 

All Surge service colleagues operate on a work-from-home (WFH) basis. They are remotely trained by Sensée, qualified to FCA standards (if required) and able to take payments in a PCI-DSS compliant manner (again, if required).  

“When it comes to providing WFH Emergency Response Teams at short notice we have a pedigree second to none having delivered award-winning contact handling solutions to major healthcare, energy, insurance, retail and travel companies for well over a decade” states Paul Whymark, Chief Operating Officer at Sensée. “When systems and infrastructure shuts down we stay open.”

Photo by Chris Gallagher on Unsplash 

Why Offshore Outsourcing Often Isn’t Better Value for Money

An article recently appeared on LinkedIn asking the question ‘Is time running out for the UK Outsourced Contact Centre Industry?’ Its main points were:

  • The cost to hire customer service agents in the UK is higher than in many offshore locations.
  • UK employees are expecting more from modern employers so the contact centre seems a less attractive option.
  • Complexity and emotions – customers are getting angrier and the vast number of channels makes it all more complex.

These points created a lively debate. But is there really a ‘second wave of offshoring’ taking place with the majority of our service calls, chats and emails about to be handled in Georgia, Rwanda and other far-flung destinations?

The article introduces all the problems that are driving this wave of offshoring and then argues that there could be some mitigating factors, such as the additional value that can be maintained with local customer service processes compared to the cost reduction that offshoring can achieve. This stability premium of retaining customer service agents locally can be important when unexpected events take place – like a global pandemic.

Human-focused customer service can also be blended much more readily with automation – especially using artificial intelligence (AI) – and this collaboration is much easier to achieve if the team is local. Although some of these factors are introduced to balance the article they are, nevertheless, very important points. 

It’s easy to scan the news archives a decade and more ago to see that companies such as BT, Aviva, Santander, and several of the power utilities moved their customer service processes to India – and then moved everything back to the UK. “Your call will be answered in the UK” inevitably became a theme that represented competitive advantage. 

Customers cared for great customer care then, and they do even more today. So it’s important to ask “a time when customers are typically being asked to pay more for goods and services, what is it saying when an organisation announces that it is moving customer contact handling to South Africa or Egypt – or even India again – to save money?” For, if anything, British consumers today are even more sensitive about being served with expedience, quality and excellence.

There are many other very good reasons why UK organisations should consider retaining customer service operations close to home. Business continuity, for instance, should not be forgotten just three years after the pandemic. Customer service processes across India and the Philippines were in complete chaos for months. Many customer service specialists had to partner with telecoms suppliers to install broadband in the home of thousands of agents just so they could start building a work from home operation.

And it doesn’t need to be another global pandemic that causes a problem – extreme weather events, political instability, or civic unrest can be equally as damaging. South Africa has a crisis in their electricity grid at present that is hardly even mentioned by customer service companies down there. Homes and businesses have no power for around half of each day now meaning that businesses have to build their own generator-driven power networks.

Innovation is another important factor. Designing a customer service solution is about more than just hiring agents to answer calls. The focus for the last decade has been to automate and self-serve through digital transformation the low-value transactions, while leveraging high-quality, high add-value customer interactions to enrich that experience between customers and brands. By now putting customer interactions further from home, have some given up on that strategy?

There’s a long list of virtuous and meaningful investments that can be done right here in the UK to make our CX people more engaged, productive and optimised to deliver brilliant – and yes, less costly – customer experiences.

At Sensée, our focus has always been on bringing meaningful work to @home colleagues so they can build sustainable careers, thereby creating opportunities for communities that couldn’t otherwise access the traditional workplace. By investing in these communities and building our ‘talent-on-tap’ offering, we have delivered a ‘better, cheaper, faster, greener’ resource for clients while raising the quality and performance bar, and injecting some CSR in their supply-chain, thereby benefiting the often disadvantaged communities that are being let down by moving the work offshore.

More recently, we’ve also helped clients design and improve their own WFH and hybrid work strategies – a good example being an award-winning partnership that has been running for several years now. When Covid arrived and office-based employees had to suddenly work from home, we helped them with our expertise in security, management, technology, resourcing and communications to help teams continue working together effectively, and critically, keeping engagement, wellbeing and productivity high.

Such value-add goes far beyond customer service alone. It’s about building an ecosystem of colleagues and partners that have the expertise and the ability to build for the better, and truly understand the link between cost and value. By investing in relationships through ‘virtuous resourcing’ we believe we can raise the bar for customers, workers and businesses alike. However this can only work if relationships are strong and we are physically close enough to step in when needed, often at very short notice.

Offshore outsourcing will always be an option for organisations that need to focus only on the cost of a customer service solution. However, if an organisation was to push all its customer interactions over to Africa or Asia they may well lose a huge amount of potential value-add within its customer base. Such a move could also create a vicious spiral where customers lose confidence – and at a time when businesses desperately need to strengthen relationships by making the customer feel, well, valued.

For more information about us, and the brands we serve, with agents all based at home, please take a look at our website here.

New study suggests more roles should be offered as part-time. But how practical is that?

The increased acceptance of working from home over the past few years has led to more changes in the workplace than merely allowing people to work remotely. It has encouraged the adoption of more flexible working hours and part-time jobs.

In many cases, these jobs would not be possible if they required a commute and then a short shift inside an office. If a part-time employee wanted to work for just three hours each morning then it’s potentially feasible if they work from home, but if there is a one-hour commute either side of that shift then suddenly it is not as attractive.

This move to increased flexibility can work well for both the employer and employee. In customer service operations there is rarely the same continuous demand for agents all day long, and rarely just on weekdays. That can work well for agents, especially as people often prefer to work at specific times – such as earlier in the morning, in the evening, or at the weekend.

Increasingly smart workforce management (WFM) systems are matching up when people would prefer to work with the times they are needed most. And this is creating greater flexibility because it means the number of staff covering calls can be reduced in quiet periods and increased during busy periods.

There are practical challenges for companies offering this level of flexibility though.

At Sensée our WFM system can manage shift allocations in blocks down to thirty minutes. This means that a team member can select to work a few hours, take a few hours off for some responsibilities at home, and then do a few more hours early in the evening.

Companies that offer this level of flexibility find that it attracts highly-skilled people as well as help retain colleagues who can see that not every employer is as flexible. This creates an improved employee experience that translates into employees that are more enthused about their job and therefore deliver a better customer experience.

It’s really the opposite of people who feel they have very little control over their working location, hours, and tasks. Give people more control and they will naturally respond positively.

However, there are still lingering concerns over how practical employing lots of part time workers actually is. For example, about whether working part-time or flexible hours allows for career progression.

A recent study published in Management Today emphasised this point. It found that 46% of people believe that a part-time position limits their career prospects and this is even higher for people in managerial or professional occupations (53%).

Yet the authors of this study conclude that all companies should be offering the ability for almost any role to be offered as part-time because this drives greater inclusivity – arguing that many people who cannot manage 40+ hours a week can take on roles if part-time options are available. And with the added bonus in today’s difficult recruitment marketplace that employers advertising part-time basis are often deluged with enquiries!

While the employer may need to make significant changes to accommodate this greater flexibility, the upside is that employees are likely to be happier in their job and more productive – as a detailed study by Oxford University found.

Part-time and flexible working is likely to become far more normal in future as hybrid working becomes ever more popular. In many cases, this flexibility would be impossible without the option to work from home. And the fears about career advancement are likely to be reduced over time. Indeed the Management Today research acknowledges that 50% of people believe that part-time workers are just as ambitious as full-time.

Part-time and flexible working hours are the future for many industries – including customer service. Take a look here to learn about our current flexible opportunities.

Why ‘Workplace’ and ‘Workforce’ Transformation Go Hand-in-Hand

In our last article we explored how the workplace has evolved to embrace a new digital form, allowing teams to work together, even when individual team members are working remotely.

This type of digital workplace platform is no longer a nice-to-have, it is essential. And especially now that office and hybrid team members are demanding similar workday flexibility to that being offered to their WFH colleagues!

Lockdown was undoubtedly the main catalyst in this workplace revolution. When the pandemic arrived, many companies asked their office-based employees to work from home – and with the same, or very similar, shift patterns. If they worked Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm, then the new routine was to work the same shift from their desk at home.

It very quickly became clear that more flexibility was possible. The long continuous shift is essential when an employee has to commute to a workplace. They can’t work three short shifts in a day when each shift requires two journeys. However, if they are working from home then very flexible hours are possible.

It’s important to note that this possibility creates opportunity for both the employee and the employer. Companies want to schedule their employees for the times when they will be needed. In customer service teams this can be planned and predicted based on past experience of customer contact and some prediction around events such as the launch of new products/services and the seasonality of sales.

Employees that are working from home know that they can still deliver the time their employer needs on the clock, but if they are at home then it should be possible to work split shifts rather than a single continuous one. In other words, an employee with caring responsibilities for an elderly relative, or children, should be able to manage their responsibilities at home and fit their work time around those commitments.

With the traditional commute and all-day shift this was rarely possible. Either you commit to be away from home all day or you can’t take the job. Now it is possible for an employee to take a job and schedule their working hours to reflect the time they need to be free.

For example, they might want to put in an early two hours starting at 6am followed by a couple of hours free followed by another two hours work then a break before a longer shift in the afternoon. Or it might be that the employee always needs to be free from 3pm to 5pm so they can collect their kids from school, but once they are home and fed they can then work for an additional couple of hours.

It is not just the workplace that has evolved to embrace this flexibility, it is the workforce. The ability to work flexibly from home has created employment opportunities for many groups of people that were previously marginalised by their inability to commit to an entire day working in an office.

The recently-retired looking for some extra income from flexible work, parents with young children, adults caring for other adult family members, people with health conditions or impairments that make it difficult to commute and spend all day at a desk. All these people have been excluded from the 9-5 office workforce, but the workplace transformation is enabling a workforce transformation.

The Sensée resource management system allows our clients to schedule according to when they need more people and when they expect fewer customer interactions. Frontline advisers can then self-select their preferred work shifts based on what is available on the scheduling system. This allows us to change how many team members are working for a client down to each 30-min block of time.

It means that the client does not have a large number of idle people working during quiet periods, but importantly it hands more control of the precise shifts worked to the employee.

It’s not just the excluded workforce that wants more flexibility. The business media often covers the increasing demands for flexible work from Gen Z. Although many older generations suggest Gen Z wants to work fewer hours, their real expectation is flexibility – they don’t want to be chained to a desk for eight hours.

The evolution of the workplace to be physical, virtual, or both, has enabled this opportunity to access an entirely new workforce – and to embrace the flexible demands of those just entering the workforce.

This flexibility is creating smart solutions for companies that want flexible customer service cover, but it also meets the needs of the agents too. It is a genuine win-win that moves the workforce away from the commute and long shifts to an environment where they are truly valued for their expertise.

5 things to consider when creating a virtual digital workplace

The Covid pandemic massively changed the workplace. With commuting to offices restricted, most office-based professionals were forced to work from home. And now that the pandemic is in the past some corporate leaders have tried to revert to how their workplace used to function. In the vast majority of cases, however, this return to 2019 has just not worked.

Indeed a recent survey conducted in the US found that 73% of companies have struggled to get their employees to return to the office. The temporary change in workplace has become permanent. Employees now expect flexibility.

What is really interesting about this change in workplace is not just the location, but ‘how’ people are working. When the crisis first arrived, many office-based employees followed their office working pattern at home – they just replicated the same hours – working from a desk at home rather than inside the office. Now this has evolved, so there has been a change in location and environment, in addition to the hours worked and flexibility of the work itself.

This has led to a much more detailed exploration of how people work together productively, by which I mean: how hybrid work can allow employees to choose some time working at home and some time in the office; how this change in workplace and work practices changes employee health and wellbeing; how new workplace technology is transforming what it means to ‘go to work’; and what all of these changes mean for issues such as the environment, public transport, and city planning.

One of the most fundamental changes has been to the workplace itself. Working from home changes the nature of interactions between employees. Companies that want to ensure their home-based team is productive (and supported) need digital tools that can transform their workplace – so the best attributes of offices can be replicated at home.

So what are the main features of an office-based workplace that need to feature (i.e. be replicated) within a ‘virtual digital workplace’?

  • Collaboration: Office environments feature employees in a single physical location where interactions, conversations, and meetings all take place (or are easy to arrange). This enhances collaboration and communication within the team.
  • Social interaction: Employees demand personal interaction and community. They want to talk about their weekend or catch up with friends. Nobody spends 100% of their time at work only talking to colleagues about work and although this networking may seem unproductive it is important for team-building and bonding.
  • Environment: Offices provide structured environment designed for work. 
  • Culture: This is often defined by the physical space that an organisation occupies – how an office is decorated and designed can present an image of how the company wants to be seen by clients and those on the outside.
  • Security: The ability to physically secure an office environment by using ID passes or badges ensures that only employees can be on site and if access to the computer network is only possible on site then this adds a further layer of data security.

These are key attributes and there are others too. Many managers prefer to be able to see their team in person, for example. And in environments that require learning on the job – such as where apprentices are being taught or where employees need a mentor – it can be useful to be together in person.

However, with an informed approach, it is now possible to digitise most – if not all – of the office experience. And the key requirement is an IT platform that all employees access when they are ‘at work.’ 

People with experience of gaming will be familiar with this idea. Modern gaming usually involves an environment where several players can interact with each other – the players can be logged into the game from anywhere but within the game they are together inside a virtual environment. The GTA 6 trailer is a good example.

Today, this type of virtual platform is enabling employees to work from home and experience the same features and attributes that their 100% office-based colleagues enjoy. And because employees – regardless of where they work – are within a virtual work environment, they can see and interact with other team members. Interactions may be related to work, so collaboration and meetings are possible, or just social – i.e. chatting to friends.

It’s all a far cry from the early experience of the pandemic. Companies that rapidly switched their workplace from the office to the home of each individual employee were not connecting their teams together into a single virtual workplace. They might have used Zoom or Teams to stay in touch with managers but there was no ongoing connection lasting for the entire shift. It was easy for many employees to become isolated during the pandemic, and this was a commonly reported issue for home workers.

When the workplace is transformed then a different type of workplace can be embraced and used to encourage team-building and innovation. This is how modern workplaces can function today and it will certainly become more common in future.

Sensée uses its own purpose-built platform, LiveDesk™️, to connect remote teams within a unified digital workplace. LiveDesk is an award-winning system that allows teams to chat, collaborate, socialise, and work together from anywhere.

(Webinar) Colleague Engagement in the Hybrid Contact Centre

TUESDAY NOV 28TH, 12 – 1PM
Chair: Jane Thomas, South West Contact Centre Forum and Northern Contact Centre Forum

In this webinar we’re looking at the:

· Main reasons WHY people want to work-from-home, or work partially from home and partially from the office, and ask HOW you can best address those needs.

· Steps you can take to optimise engagement, productivity and employee happiness in the WFH/hybrid world.

The session will feature real insights and tangible examples to help support your Employee Engagement strategy.

We’ll also provide a summary of the latest UK research into the New World of Work and ask what evidence exists to show that @home workers can be as engaged, productive and happy as office-based personnel.

Jane will be joined by Sensée Service Delivery Manager Jo Hodge and Sensée Team Leader Ceri May.

Join our webinar to speak to experts and share your experiences.

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.