The decades-long debate comparing work-at-home vs. on-premise call center agents is a front-and-center topic today. Our industry is nearly six months into the workplace changes brought on by the coronavirus, and we are still adjusting to the current state of things. Many companies managed the sudden shift to work-at-home with few difficulties, while others are still struggling to overcome challenges, particularly with staffing, training, agent engagement, collaboration and attrition.
So, what does the future hold for call center operations? With Q4 and 2021 approaching fast, we must ask ourselves:
- Has pandemic fatigue has set in?
- How much longer can we use “because of COVID” as an excuse for poor service?
- What are the impacts on US domestic call centers vs. offshore and nearshore operations?
- Are call center workers missing the social interaction of on-premise sites?
- Are staffing and performance challenges manifesting or improving?
- Is there an uptick in applicants seeking transient jobs vs. a career path?
- What will the on-premise and work-at-home hybrid ratio be moving forward?
Company leaders are reconsidering the work-at-home vs. on-premise debate with new questions and concerns as they contemplate how to retain customers and employees while navigating the stormy months to come — and beyond.
Benefits and Challenges of Work-at-Home vs. On-Premise Call Center Models
Even before COVID-19 swept through the US and the world, work-at-home or virtual call center staffing was already on the rise. Yet the reality of the daily isolation from co-workers, lack of support staff, and feeling disconnected from a team-based culture are concerns, especially for more extroverted call center agents.
Long-standing work-at-home operations have had years of experience in developing a success formula. Most have well-developed technology, processes, policies, and staffing models that drive the right outcomes. Naturally, these success factors were developed over time, and pre-COVID work-at-home operations are reaping the benefits as a result.
However, COVID-19 forced many companies to fast-track and put in a stopgap solution. Given the evolving crisis, and the reality of a once seemingly temporary situation becoming a “new standard,” call center leaders are considering what the ideal future operation should look like.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to either model, and each brings unique benefits and challenges. The table below lists some of the most common:
|Work-at-Home Call Center Model||On-Premise Call Center Model|
Adapting On-Premise Practices for Work-at-Home Call Center Agents
Newly and hastily deployed work-at-home programs are still evolving. The lack of appropriate virtual training and agent engagement processes and platforms are major challenges. As well, in the rush to staff at-home workers, companies overestimated that “all” call center agents would be able to function effectively in a work-at-home environment — but we all know this is not the case.
Many organizations tried to emulate on-premise recruiting, training and coaching practices but overlooked the fact that adjustments must be made to account for a virtual format vs. the benefits of in-person training. Yet still, a number of in-house and outsourced operations are leading the way with innovative processes and employee engagement programs for an ideal virtual agent delivery model.
Here are just a few of the major challenges that most virtual call center operations must effectively deal with today:
Recruiting and Retaining Work-at-Home Call Center Agents
One of the greatest recruiting benefits of a work-at-home model for call centers is the ability to hire from an expanded labor force without geographical limitations. However, nationwide unemployment benefits and stimulus checks have created a new set of staffing challenges. Many operations have reported a supply-demand gap — positions are open, but agents are either looking for temporary work or opting for stimulus money instead.
Under normal circumstances, like the pre-COVID days, agent staffing and turnover were commonplace challenges in our industry. But we live in a different world now. And while applicant flow often increases in tandem with higher unemployment rates, we are in unchartered territory in terms of applicant quality and retention. Therefore, call center operations must step up their game when it comes to attracting, developing and retaining strong talent.
Compensation structures must be competitive, amenities should be front-and-center, scheduling requirements need to be loosened up and career path opportunities must be clearly communicated. Look for candidates who are self-motivated, tech-savvy, have strong problem-solving capability, are autonomous, and who are proficient in virtual and text-based communication.
Engaging Remote-Working Agents
It has been reported to us that, while applicant inflow is stable, agent turnover has increased. Work-at-home operations are likely finding that agents are enthusiastic and motivated in the first few months of working at home, but over time, their productivity and long-term interest wanes. This typically stems from feeling isolated and not part of the team.
Engaging work-at-home staff requires a constant communication cadence from leadership. Innovative social activities like birthday celebrations, team lunches, games and activities done virtually can help morale and motivation. While not the same as face-to-face, virtual platforms help agents to see and connect with their team. Use collaborative tools like Workplace from Facebook, Zoom, Slack, Microsoft Teams and others for daily team huddles and coaching sessions.
Investing in agent morale has never been more important in the call center industry. Some of our vendors are sending “care packages” to their work-at-home agents as a show of appreciation and to reinforce the company’s commitment to its people. We have also advised our vendors to hire personal trainers and offer free online personal training sessions to their agent teams, which can go a long way for a healthy state of mind in addition to physical fitness.
Incorporate Video into Virtual Training
The level of training provided to new work-at-home agents varies widely depending on the business type and industry. Some companies can quickly get new-hires onto the virtual call center floor with a few days of online training and with access to a robust knowledge base. In other companies, new-hires require weeks of complex, hands-on classroom training followed by an on-premise nesting period before finally transitioning to the home-work environment.
Due to COVID-19, most call centers have placed a temporary hold on classroom training; however, we are starting to see a return to on-premise training with proper social distancing. Where possible, call center operations are using on-premise and video training for remote workers. Many trainers have found that incorporating content quizzes and video role-playing helps to increase the remote learner’s retention of the training material. An advantage to video is that agents can review the recorded sessions over and over at their convenience, and trainers can record brief refresher clips to send to agents daily or as needed.
Sales and Retention Program Challenges in Work-at-Home
Customer acquisition programs involving sales, saves and retention all require a different set of performance management and coaching vs. customer service.
Call center sales programs are uniquely geared to perform better in an on-premise model. It is the nature of the job and of the individuals (extroverts) who shine in the role. The open sales floor often energizes sales agents to perform well. The close proximity of team members allows for instant collaboration, a quick exchange of ideas, celebrations as individuals and teams hit their goals, and helps to maintain a healthy competition.
Gamification platforms can provide work-at-home sales agents with a virtual call center sales floor complete with real-time messaging, video, leaderboards, contests, sales agent scores, prizes and rewards.
The Call Center Work Environment: 2021 and Beyond
The CARES Act benefits have officially expired. How will that impact hiring in the call center industry? A number of our clients are calling for a return to on-premise agents (with the right social distancing, of course). Many call centers are conducting hiring, onboarding and training virtually with the caveat upfront that the work-at-home status is temporary and will eventually return to an on-premise job.
Which model is best for your call center operation? Agents want the best of both worlds. Most companies are considering a hybrid model in which agents work on-premise three or four days a week, with one or two days at home.
As we move forward toward 2021 and beyond, how will the events of this year change the way our agents work? The coronavirus crisis has presented the call center industry with a push to rethink and revise traditional systems, practices and talent management for the modern worker and workplace. Agents have been asking for these changes for years.
Let’s seize the opportunity to be better.