Are Remote Agents in Your Staffing Future?

By Penny Reynolds

One of the most critical steps in making and receiving customer calls is deciding not just how many agents will be needed, but what type of staffing solution will be used. Since up to three-fourths of call center costs are related to labor, this decision is fundamental to the operation of the business. How a business chooses to get people in place to handle its customer interactions will affect every other function within the center.  This can include site selection and facility design, forecasting and scheduling, performance management, technology acquisition and management, facilities management, human resources administration, and risk management.

The four options for call center staffing include traditional in-house staffing, outsourcing, contract agency staffing, and telecommuting. This article will explore the possibilities, advantages, and disadvantages of telecommuting as a call center staffing solution.

The practice of telecommuting for office workers is growing rapidly. The International Telework Association and Council (ITAC), based in Washington, DC, forecasts that over 30 million workers will telecommute by the end of 2004, more than a 50 percent increase in just three years. This growth is occurring across all sectors of business including business and legal services, health care, banking and finance, as well as others. The call center, with its “knowledge worker” population, is one of the professions best positioned to take advantage of this work option.

The technology exists today to allow agents to log in from home or any other remote site and receive calls in the same way as if they were sitting in the call center. Telecommuters can be part of an automatic call distribution (ACD) agent group and receive calls just like the other agents in the group. Data can be sent to their screen at home just like what they would see in the center. The technology also provides for management functions so that the remote agents’ statistics are tracked and reported just like the in-house agents. Supervisors can also monitor and record remote agents’ calls on a real-time or scheduled basis.

Some ACD systems provide built-in capabilities to enable remote agent connections. Other call centers rely on third-party remote agent technology that allows agents to receive calls from the regular ACD as if they were a position in the center. This type of technology makes it possible for agents to even use the features and functions of the ACD phone system from home over regular, dial-up telephone lines using a basic off-the-shelf telephone set.

Telecommuting Advantages: There are many advantages to telecommuting or remote agents. They are:

Schedule Flexibility. The main advantage of using remote workers as all or part of the call center workforce is the flexibility gained in scheduling. It is very difficult to cover the peaks and valleys of calls throughout the day with traditional staff. The call center may have a two-hour peak of calls in the morning and another in the afternoon. While the call center can’t expect someone to come into the center and work a split shift to handle those periods, it may be reasonable to expect a person working from home to do so.

Covering night and weekend hours may also be easier to accomplish with telecommuters. Many people do not like to commute to work at night when crime and traffic risks go up. These same people may be willing to work those hours if they can do so from the comfort of their own home.

Real Estate Savings: Another primary benefit of telecommuting is the space savings for the physical call center. Assuming that an agent occupies 50 square feet of call center space and the lease cost of this space is $20 per square foot per month, the savings per agent would be $1,000 per month or $12,000 per year, and this is just the cost of the space alone. In addition, the one-time and ongoing costs of building and maintaining workstations, furniture, lunchrooms, conference spaces, and other amenities along with the cost of additional utilities, costs could easily double.

This estimate of savings is supported by actual industry statistics. According to numbers from ITAC there is a cost avoidance of $25,000 per teleworking agent when compared to traditional staffing alternatives.

Expanded Labor Pool: Another strong reason to consider the utilization of a remote workforce is the potential to attract additional labor sources. This expanded labor pool may include those that are highly qualified workers, but are handicapped or physically challenged and unable to commute daily into the business site.

A telecommuting option may also simply bring in a bigger pool of qualified candidates attracted to the prospect of working at home and avoiding the commuting hassles of getting to their job every day. In fact, companies not only find their candidate pool increasing, but also find that people may be willing to work for less money if telecommuting is an option. In addition to avoiding the travel time of a long commute, employees can save money on transportation costs, food costs, and a working wardrobe. These are all significant benefits to employees.

Remote staffing capabilities may also be a way to have workers who are out of the office due to illness or disability back on the job sooner. Rather than waiting for a full recovery, many workers may be able to resume working sooner from home, either on a full-time or gradual part-time basis.

Staff Retention: Businesses generally find that their teleworking employees have much higher job satisfaction and retention rates than traditional in-house employees. In addition to the “hard dollar” employee benefits listed above, the additional time found in their day is a big factor in the employees’ overall satisfaction and quality of life.

Another retention benefit is the fact that trained employees can be retained even if they move to another city or area of the country. Many call centers lose valuable employees when a spouse’s job takes them to a new place. With remote agent capabilities, the high-quality agent can remain employed avoiding recruiting, hiring, and training costs for new staff, not to mention the retention of valuable skills and knowledge.

Increased Productivity: Many trial programs of telecommuting workers versus traditional office workers suggest that telecommuters are more productive. The main reason for this higher productivity may be the fact that there are fewer interruptions to distract the employee. Their comfort and increased satisfaction from working at home may also be a contributing factor to the better productivity.

Disaster Recovery: All sorts of disasters and emergencies can happen that disable normal call center functions. Having a pool of remote workers can assist the call center in carrying out its work during emergencies. A flu epidemic or icy road may prevent staff from coming into the center, but work can still be carried out from remote sites. A flood or power outage at the call center can damage workstations, but assuming connectivity to the main switch is still possible, agents at home can continue to process calls.

Environmental Impact: Having fewer people driving into the call center every day can certainly reduce auto emissions and pollution. This isn’t just a nice benefit, but may help some companies comply with legal regulations. The federal Clean Air Act requires companies with more than one-hundred employees in high-pollution areas to design and implement programs to reduce air pollution. Setting up a telecommuting program is one option for complying with this rule.

Telecommuting Disadvantages: Telecommuting is not for everyone however. There are also some downsides to this staffing alternative. The major obstacle preventing many companies from doing telecommuting is the issue of equipping the agent to work at home. While the voice part of the technology is easy to accomplish and phone calls can be seamlessly made and answered, the bigger obstacle has to do with the data portion of the call.

Delivery of the data portion of the call to the agent’s desktop at home requires equipping the agent with the proper equipment and sufficient bandwidth to enable customer interactions. Dedicated lines can be expensive, and ISDN and DSL lines are not available in every area. There is also concern about the delivery of private or confidential information to an agent’s home where friends and family members may have access to it.

Social concerns should also be taken into consideration. Those team members that work from home may not feel as much of the team as their on-site counterparts. And it may be more difficult to keep at-home agents “in the loop” of office communications and new procedures. Many companies address this gap by having the employee come into the office at least one day a week to work.

Finally, many employees are not good candidates for telecommuting. Some may lack the experience or discipline to work without supervision. Other individuals need the camaraderie of being in a social workplace. It is important to define up front what selection criteria will be used and make sure a process is in place to continually monitor and coach telecommuters to ensure they effectively contribute to the goals and objectives of the center and of the overall business.

Evaluating the Potential: An increasing number of organizations are exploring or implementing the telecommuting option as a way to get the flexibility they need in staffing as well as to improve employee satisfaction and morale. Do you think telecommuting might be a potential solution for your call center? Proceed slowly by implementing a small pilot program first to test its acceptance and success. You may find that the “work at home” solution is a winner for your center, your agents, and your clients.

Penny Reynolds is a Founding Partner of The Call Center School, a Nashville, Tennessee based consulting and education company. The company provides educational offerings for call center professionals including traditional classroom courses, Web-based seminars, and self-paced e-learning programs at the manager, supervisor, and front-line staff level. For more information, call 615-812-8400.

[From Connection MagazineJan/Feb 2004]

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