Hybrid Work: Scary Stuff for Contact Centers
By Colin Taylor
Halloween, the night of the dead, the end of all things, whatever you call it, this time of year with the harvest behind us and the ghouls and goblins; not to mention Squid Game characters who have now darkened our door; can be a frightening time. It is more frightening perhaps as we are all still dealing with the fallout of the pandemic.
While some areas of the economy are getting back to pre-Covid levels of activity and hiring is robust in many sectors, there are still some areas of concern on the horizon. We have all seen the pundits and experts wax poetic about the risk of a 4th wave, 5th wave, new mutations, and the likelihood that Covid-19 will shift from being a pandemic to being endemic and something we just learn to live with like the flu (or subtitles and bad dubbing on Netflix binge-worthy series). With these two twin challenges of Covid and Korean dramas addressed, let me move on to other less critical, but still important areas of concern…
First, why is it that corporate America, now that it has embraced the concept of remote contact center agents and hybrid work environments, is so slow in adjusting its management processes to support these new deployment models? We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that traditionally in the pre-pandemic world there was great resistance to remote contact centers, driven in part by technology concerns and by a management concern that “if we can’t watch them, how do we know that they are working and not watching Netflix”?
The early returns were very positive: productivity went up and absenteeism and sick days went down, to the surprise and delight of managers. Both of these changes were broadly seen as innate aspects of remote work and were taken as positive ”wins”. Both of these are emblematic of darker and more frightening (see how I brought this back to scary Halloween?) shifts that were occurring under the surface.
Over time, many organizations maintained their productivity but saw slippage in their attendance and absenteeism for remote staff. On the surface, this seems counter-intuitive. How could someone be absent? Did they lose their way between the kitchen and the office? How could they get sick when they were under lockdowns and mask mandates?
If we investigate the root cause of the initial improvement in productivity, I suspect that we will find that the elimination of the in-office environment also eliminated many distractions, water-cooler discussions, ad-hoc hallway meetings, and the chats that would take place in and around customer interactions with their peers around them. With these practices as casualties of working from home, we see that the agent has more time available, and this equates to more time in a ready state, higher occupancy, and higher productivity. What this analysis fails to consider, however, is whether those casualties; those discontinued practices; added value to the agent, the organization, and ultimately to customers.
Qualtrics reported that 41.6% of respondents report a mental health decline since the Covid-19 outbreak. This makes sense, as working remotely, by its nature, will increase feelings of isolation and disconnection.
The much-ballyhooed Hybrid work environment presents challenges for contact center operators. One of the primary tenets of Hybrid work environments is that “it designs the work experience around and for the worker, wherever they are. It empowers people to work onsite, offsite and moving between locations”.
Now, in a contact center environment, we cannot design the work experience “around and for the worker.” It must be designed to support the needs of the customer while supporting the engagement and success of the worker. This means that the agents cannot determine when and where they will work. Perhaps they can make choices and selections from a set of options, but their selection cannot be disconnected from the needs of the customer as defined through a robust Workforce Management (WFM) process. With the traditional office worker, it may make little difference to their actual productivity or performance whether they work remotely. Much of their work is not completed in real-time; there may be meetings on Zoom or Teams; but the work they do outside of these meetings is not governed by immediate demands that must be met, such as a ringing phone that must be answered.
This is a new struggle for managers as we have never seen a pandemic before and never have we had to wrestle with the potential negative impacts of working from home. So what can or should a contact center operator do to address these issues?
In June of 2020, we published a research study. We identified that 85% of respondents indicated that they needed to address operational processes to support remote agents. The top two processes that needed to be addressed were cited as ‘Work-From-Home Policies’ and ‘Onboarding and New Hire Training’. Today, we see many organizations have yet to address these two operational processes. In the same report Taylor Reach advocated for developing and implementing WFH-focused solutions and processes such as Quality, Coaching, Training, WFM, etc. to strengthen their WFH capabilities, performance, and effectiveness.
Attention to redesigning these processes goes hand in hand with revising how we manage and coach our staff. The old, in-office, approach and processes don’t work in a remote environment. We need to be aware of the challenges to our front-line agents when working from home. These challenges include the elimination of the social network and interactions that they had in the office, watercooler, and ad-hoc interactions. But they have also lost the safety net they were used to working with: having a neighbor to answer a quick question, raising your hand to get a team leader‘s attention, the ability to interact with a manager and get updates and information as they employ ‘Management by walking around’. These challenges prompted a second recommendation: increased spending on remote skills assessment tools and employee wellbeing: mental health support, and training.
Management by walking around isn’t an option for managers today in a remote environment and Managers, Supervisors, and Team Leads are not sure how to lead in this environment. Many organizations haven’t been able to provide much guidance beyond having team chats and check-ins. Leaders need to know that our in-office practices, like walking around, won’t work here. We need new practices. We need agents with webcams so we can promote an improved sense of connectivity. We need virtual watercoolers and/or happy hours. We need to create space for team social interaction. We need to provide tools and techniques to manage stress and create a cadence for group, team and one on one meetings via Zoom or similar where we can ask how the person is doing, acknowledge the challenges, highlight the tools or processes we have established to address these and ask for feedback on how we, the organization are doing at supporting them.
We need to acknowledge our agents’ stress levels and frustration with the isolation that can be a result of WFH. Adding a chance for the agents to discuss what they find stressful can be helpful, as can meditation, mindfulness, and clearing exercises. Some organizations have deployed apps like Headspace to help support their staffs’ mental health. Others have added mental health policies and mental health professionals to their organization or EAPs. This is in conjunction with awareness campaigns to:
- Be transparent in our support of our workers’ mental health
- recognize that we are all different and react to stressors differently
- overcome the fear of talking about mental health
- address the stigma of discussing mental health that many still harbor
By revising the way we lead and manage our front-line agents to better align with the nature of remote work we can establish new practices and processes that fit better with remote, WFH, or hybrid work. This is a better solution than to keep trying to jam the round peg of our in-office practices into the square hole that is WFH.
 A hybrid work environment includes a mixture of in-office and remote employees.
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