The COVID-19 pandemic forced a seismic change in employee staffing. Many, if not most, companies rapidly shifted from an in-office environment to remote work. Nowhere was that shift more apparent than in the call center industry. Traditional brick-and-mortar business process outsourcers (BPO) had to adapt to a work-at-home (WAH) model almost overnight.
Agents housed in rows of cubicles were sent home to work from makeshift offices and forced to deal with distractions from family members, pets, and other routine interruptions. To avoid common security lapses posed by the WAH setting, BPOs found themselves implementing secure desktop, voice, and monitoring solutions.
Now that we are more than 18 months past when the pandemic first shook the call center industry, every client is asking us (and themselves) the same question:
Which staffing model is best going forward — in-house, work-at-home, or hybrid?
That question isn't the only one being asked. Others bear much deeper consideration:
- Are traditional brick-and-mortar BPOs better at in-house or work-at-home in terms of performance and service delivery?
- If clients use a hybrid, what are the criteria to arrive at the correct ratio, and what is that based on?
- Do you separate by line of business, complexity, or split staff within the same types of queues?
- Do agents initially train in-center and then move to work-at-home?
- If all training is virtual, how well does that bode for knowledge retention and service delivery compared to in-person training?
- Do you bring agents back on-site if they have performance issues?
- How do you ensure team collaboration and motivation levels in work-at-home?
- Is there a significant difference in turnover or absenteeism in either model?
- Is our industry leaning toward a return to in-center? What signs are pointing in that direction?
- What is the long-term impact of worker isolation in a work-at-home model?
- What about the long-term impact of client branding, which is hard to do in a work-at-home environment?
- What impact does the worker shortage and U.S. labor market issues have on either of the three models?
- What are the longer-term concerns over privacy and data security in work-at-home?
Some of these questions lend themselves to definitive responses, while others do not. Rather than answer each question verbatim, we address those we can, grouping responses into the following categories: staffing model pros and cons, agent performance/service delivery, training, management, and retention/turnover. We then conclude by discussing several of the long-term impacts.
Call Center Staffing Model Pros and Cons
The truth is that each call center staffing model has pros and cons. What we are finding, however, is that more of our clients want a dual solution to minimize risk and avail themselves of each option’s benefits.
It stands to reason that traditional brick-and-mortar BPOs would prefer agents to work in the center. (In fact, some of our nearshore/offshore vendor sites are already 60-70% in-center versus work-at-home.) They can maintain line-of-sight control, facilitate face-to-face communication and collaboration, and manage agents using established policies and procedures.
Still, it's a misnomer to think that agents working remotely is a new iteration, solely the result of COVID-19. According to the National Association of Contact Centers , 53% of U.S. call centers already had some agents working from home. Yet the pandemic forced companies to accept the work-at-home paradigm and accommodate a new way of working.
A third option is on the table: employ a hybrid model. If you ask agents — and 5th Talent, a service industry management company, did just that — you will find they prefer a hybrid approach. It takes advantage of the strengths of the other models and solves several of the problems each presents.
For instance, agents can work where they want, save money on transportation and related expenses, enjoy more time with family, and have the option of working in-center or at home.
The hybrid model also reduces the adverse social effects that result from the lack of interpersonal interaction and isolation of the strict WAH model. In addition, it allows supervisors and agents to close the physical gap and hold face-to-face meetings, improving communication and collaboration.
However, unanswered questions remain: Where do you draw the line between how much time agents spend at home versus the call center, and what other criteria are involved in making that decision?
Agent Performance & Service Delivery
Business consulting firm Frost & Sullivan reports that the remote agent model has created a better customer experience, resulting in increased loyalty and revenue.
"With first call resolution at 34% for U.S. centers, remote agents are able to take customer service to the next level and increase customer loyalty," the report said.
The report added that because in-house agents encounter interruptions at-home agents do not, working in an environment with fewer distractions allows agents to focus on meeting service level objectives. It also said that agents working remotely show increased productivity of up to one hour daily.
Reinforcing the model’s viability, an August 2020 J.D.Power survey showed that 92% of survey respondents said their customer experience scores stayed the same (56%) or increased (36%) during work-at-home.
No doubt training workers remotely offers several challenges, such as a sense of disconnection, difficulty monitoring progress, and possible lack of resources, to name a few.
The hybrid model overcomes those challenges by enabling agents to undergo initial onboarding and client-specific training in the BPO's training facilities. If agents have performance issues, they can return to the center for further training.
Virtual training also comes with its own advantages. For one, it enables agents to reside outside of the call center's geographical boundaries while receiving the same training. With proper planning, the right technology tools, and e-learning-based instructional design, effective training can be facilitated in a distance learning environment.
Managing remote agents also presents a challenge, requiring a different mindset and skillset on the supervisor's part. Due to the sense of isolation and work-at-home fatigue agents may feel, the supervisor becomes as much a "life coach" as a skills coach.
Much of the way supervisors manage employees stays the same, however. Managers must continue to reward good performance, offer consistent feedback, and hold agents accountable for meeting service level metrics. At the same time, they must recognize work-at-home agents need some degree of autonomy and should not be micro-managed.
Perhaps more important than anything is pro-actively fostering company culture and a sense of inclusion. Home-based agents should still feel connected to the organization, and managers must find ways to show agents that they matter.
Agent Retention & Turnover
Employee satisfaction and morale contribute to agent retention. According to the Frost & Sullivan report, the retention rate for at-home agents is 80% versus 25% for in-house. The reasons for that are varied.
- Work-at-home agents are older on average — 38 compared to 23 for on-site agents.
- More than 80% have a college education and management experience, compared to 35% for on-site agents.
- At-home agents are also more likely to value their employment and view it as a profession instead of "just a job."
Staffing Model Long-term Impacts
Despite the challenges the remote work-at-home staffing model demonstrates, the consensus among our clients and vendors is that work-at-home will be adopted as a long-term strategy. Industry research backs up that assertion.
The J.D. Power survey, referenced earlier, found that 86% of the 124 customer service organizations surveyed said they plan to support permanent work-at-home models. An October 2020 Gallup survey revealed that nearly two-thirds of U.S. workers who have been working remotely during the pandemic are likely to continue. The 5th Talent study reported that 46% of agents would prefer to work full-time at home, while 94% favor some blend between the office and home.
The paradigm shift imposed on the BPO industry by COVID-19 is here to say, at-least for the foreseeable future. However, ensuring long-term viability demands a willingness to revamp ways of working and implement processes better suited to this new environment.
Having the right technology in place for security and monitoring, software to support remote collaboration, adapting to a new management style, paying attention to agents' personal needs, and implementing new WAH policies are also factors to consider.
The work-at-home model has been in place long before COVID-19 forced BPOs to study its adoption. Those already employing it were less traumatized by the pandemic’s effect on operations as a result.
While we heartily encourage BPOs to pilot work-at-home and hybrid models to test their viability, we assert that physical sites aren’t going away anytime soon, not here in the U.S., nearshore, or offshore.
Business as “unusual” may be business as usual going forward, but one thing is certain: BPOs will find a way forward, regardless of the approach they choose.