One 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 SensÃ©e, the UKâ€™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 SensÃ©e, 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.