The Importance of Human Connection in a Remote Workplace
When we packed up our offices to work from home in March, many thought it would only last a few months until it was safe to return to an office space. Today, it seems pretty clear that many companies have adopted this new working model for the foreseeable future. Some will allow their employees to ‘Work-From-Home’ permanently, others ‘indefinitely’ or if the employee chooses to do so. Other employers will allow employees to work-from-home provided the role allows it. Others will use a variety of hybrid models where employees go into the office for specific activities and/ or for specified periods of time. We overcame technology issues, and managed productivity. Now we need to think about the social impact that working from home will have and shift our focus to developing new ways to both connect with and engage our employees.
We’ve Come So Far
Initially, technological challenges were the number one issue. You didn’t need to work in the call centre industry to know which companies were facing connectivity, internet bandwidth and telephony issues. You could tell just by trying to contact many customer service departments especially withing the first 6 weeks. The challenges were obvious. This was also confirmed in a Taylor Reach Research of contact centre operators conducted in May 2020 that verified technology was the #1 challenge in moving to WFH (https://thetaylorreachgroup.com/resources/research-report-covid-19-impact-on-contact-centres/).
Then it seemed the focus was on productivity, which for the contact centre industry is always top of mind. We know the costs associated with reduced productivity and the impact it can have on the service level standards we set and our ability to serve well. As many centres were focused on clearing a backlog of inquiries, repeat calls, delivery delays or spikes in inquiries for a number of reasons those without the use of advanced technology solutions to offload simpler inquiries, fared even worse.
We have always known from a business perspective the many advantages that working from home can provide however, it was exception rather than the rule 6 months ago to hear of a call centre using a Work-From-Home model. The same Taylor Reach Group research study of contact centre operators noted above also showed only 23% of agents were Work-From-Home prior to the Covid-19 crisis and increased to 87% of agents working from home at the end of May. Now that Work-From-Home is in place and some of the initial challenges overcome, centres can reap the benefits that previously were not available such as access to languages and a larger talent pool especially for specific skill sets and a reduction in costs associated with office space. Many companies have also said that employees are happier and, some research suggests, more productive as well. It appears to be a win/win.
Community and Connectedness
Human connection is an energy exchange between people who are paying attention to one another. It has the power to deepen the moment, inspire change and build trust.
For call centre operators however, it is a bit more complicated. Call centres are a community nestled within a larger organization. Through this community, employees understand the culture of the organization. In addition, the workplace can also provide a sense of belonging and connectedness. This may well be lost when we remove ourselves physically from the workplace and operate virtually. As we know, working from home can take its toll on the mental health of individuals and increase feelings of loneliness and isolation. It can also lead to feelings of FOMO (fear of missing out). Call centres often attract newly graduated students looking for career advancement or other opportunities within the organization. There is no longer the lunchroom or water cooler through which people can network, socialize or simply communicate. We lose the human connection.
Call centre operators must look for new ways to bring people together and to both motivate and inspire them in this new world. We need to look for new ways we create opportunities for growth and career development for our teams. We still need to look for ways to bring people together not relying solely on lunch periods to bring them into the fold, keep them in the loop and help them feel relevant, not forgotten.
Cross functional or inter departmental communication will be more important than before. As a leader over many years, many times I learned of something impacting the call centre while we were packing up at the end of a cross functional meeting. I may not have known about it otherwise. Absent of adequate processes to gather and share information across departments, we can easily end up working in silos.
Now that we have gone from the worst of it, it’s easy for call centre leaders to slip into the routine of existing methodology and simply replace what we did before with virtual meeting technology. We need to challenge ourselves and our teams to adopt new ways to respond to the realities of working from home. Just like we have multiple touch points with our customers, we need to also have them with our front line and team leaders, continually tweaking and refining as we learn together what works best.
Here are a few examples that can help build a sense of responsiveness, connectedness and a community in the workplace.
Schedule Flexibility: Now much easier than before without commute time in between, employees work their shift separated by a 2 to 4 hour break in the middle. This might help employees with school age children, for example, assist their children with their homework.
Career Development: Establish an employee mentoring program for staff who’ve identified themselves as wanting to further their career.
Social interaction: Offering both large and smaller social gatherings (drop in virtual chats, or virtual lunches) at a variety of times throughout the day. Like we need to make it easy for our customers, we need to make it easier for our employees to interact with each other. Another company I know created a buddy system where people take time to chat on the phone together during their break or lunch each day.
Interdepartmental Information Exchange: Create monthly or bi-monthly meetings with Marketing or IT for example to ensure any new initiatives impacting volume or the customer are properly planned for.
The push forward
The working world has changed. There is no doubt about that. Companies around the globe showed their resilience by shuttering physical offices, while transitioning to various Work-From-Home models. It wasn’t easy, but companies were able to scatter to Work-From-Home with previous biases no longer relevant, overcome technological limitations and security concerns and manage all the logistics that prior to the crisis could not be resolved. We were able to swiftly overcome obstacles during a time of crisis proving that, when we put our minds to something, we can do just about anything. Organizations should now draw upon this agility and determination to improve the employee experience create new & better ways of working together while we are physically apart.
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