Are Remote Agents the Future of Contact Centers?

The lasting impacts of COVID-19 are unknown but the accelerated shift to the remote call center workforce management is likely to endure

Is it us, or is the “new normal” starting to feel kind of, well, normal? We’re all adapting since COVID-19 struck, maybe better than we initially expected. But what does the future hold once this pandemic passes?

Questions remain regarding how many of the habits and work models adopted during the crisis will endure when the coronavirus subsides. Will remote agents continue to represent a significant proportion of the call center workforce? Or will the future of the contact center mean that SMBs and clients rush to bring employees back to the traditional production floor?

Although there is a lot of truth to that old saying, “the only constant is change,” the work-from-home agent is likely to become a permanent feature of the industry landscape. Here’s why.

The contact center workforce was already going remote

The call center industry was beyond the experimental phase of work-from-home before COVID-19 hit. Numerous companies had adopted it as their sole workforce model, among them many SMBs that found in remote agents a flexible, low-overhead workforce option.

Helping this transition along were cloud technologies. Digital transformation brought remote-ready ACD systems, which diminished the technical hurdle to a distributed workforce.

Add in a once-booming economy in which talent was scarce and many contact centers were eager to expand their available recruiting pool beyond the immediate radius of their call center facility.

Suffice it to say, remote call center workforce management was gaining steam.

The pandemic forced companies to try remote call center agents

If half of the industry was integrating work-from-home agents before COVID-19, as some estimates indicate, then about half was not. But the pandemic was a force that overcame inertia and overshadowed other concerns about call centers’ remote workers.

As a result, many companies hesitant to give work-from-home programs a try had no choice but to do so. It stands to reason that at least some of them have been impressed by the advantages and will stick to a remote or hybrid model.

Resilience concerns will remain after COVID-19

COVID-19 has sparked another strategic change as well. Resilience—the ability to pivot in response to unforeseeable crisis—has become a top priority among leaders in nearly every industry, including contact centers.

Work-from-home agents are a resilient resource, especially when supported with appropriately redundant technologies. If a hurricane or other natural disaster affects agent availability in a certain geographic area, for example, their counterparts in other regions can fill in. Or if a future public health emergency arises, a remote workforce can help insulate call center operations from outbreaks.

Contact centers will inevitably take these factors into account as part of their business continuity plans.

The advantages of integrating remote workers are compelling

As impactful as COVID-19 has been, there are countless other reasons call centers are likely to turn to remote agents in the future. Among them:

Talent Pool

Remote workers enable call centers to integrate talent from wherever it can be found (within the bounds of employment law). Work-from-home can even boost inclusivity, making it easier for disabled individuals, for instance, to contribute their skills.

Flexibility & Scalability

A nice benefit of today’s contact center workforce management solutions, scheduling capabilities are more flexible than ever. Work-from-home arrangements can leverage these advantages.

For example, call center managers can implement shorter shifts for remote workers, who don’t necessarily expect eight hours in exchange for their commute. Not only does this empower call center leaders to schedule more precisely based on call volumes—such as planning for a few extra agents during the lunchtime peak—it can appeal to parents, graduate students and others as a way to fit some paid work into the gaps in their schedules.

Employee satisfaction

Many people enjoy the convenience of working from home. After all, who can argue with comfortable shoes (or slippers)? Numerous contact centers report increased productivity and morale after sending agents home, which helps reduce churn and the associated recruitment, training and service level costs.

Cost-savings

We’ve just named several ways a remote workforce can save money, but there are more. Work-from-home agents don’t require on-site space, so physical facilities can be smaller. Depending on whether the call center issues workstations or reimburses for internet connectivity, other overhead expenditures may be shifted off the company as well.

Workforce, management and customer experience challenges remain

Notwithstanding the many reasons remote call center agents will be an enduring feature of the contact center landscape, there are real challenges in making it a success:

  • Morale can fall after the novelty of work-from-home “freedom” wears off, unless contact center leaders find effective ways of managing remote call center agents.
  • Training must be adapted to avoid declines in quality management and customer experience. Unfortunately, deficiencies may become more apparent as call centers move on from transitioning existing agents home and start recruiting new agents who have never experienced in-person training and support.
  • Communication and coaching must be adapted to the remote environment to retain the advantages of all those carefully evolved motivational tactics, ranging from scheduled side-by-sides to the ad hoc “thumbs up” to an agent who needs encouragement.
  • Security has, in some cases, taken a back seat to public health concerns during COVID-19, but contact centers need to be considering how to retain a high level of data protection in a work-from-home scenario.
  • Workforce employee engagement building strategies will need to be created to make remote team members feel like part of a close-knit group and sustain their emotional investment in the company mission.

The ultimate determinant for work-from-home will be customer experience. Where contact centers find ways to address the challenges of managing and motivating remote call center workers, they will likely continue to integrate work-from-home talent in a stand-alone or hybrid fashion. The creativity that will go into their new workforce management and engagement strategies will make call centers pretty exciting places for some time to come.

Want more information to help you adapt to this new world? Check out this webinar!

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