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.

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