At-Home Agents Pros and Cons

By Donna Fluss

The hype about at-home agents has been ramping up for years, though the number of companies adopting this practice has been relatively small. For the past two years, I have been asking contact center managers if they were using or planning to use at-home agents. Their answers varied based on many factors, including geography, vertical, and time frame. Currently, at-home agents are most popular in the United States and increasingly in Canada, so for the time being, at-home agents are basically a North American trend. Many financial services organizations are interested in using at-home agents but are concerned about data security, including payment card industry (PCI) standards and other regulatory issues. (A few financial services firms have successfully addressed these challenges already.)  Retailers appear to be highly successful early adopters of the at-home agent model, as are a number of companies in the travel industry and a growing number of outsourcers. Emerging at-home agent best practices are coming from these firms, based on practical and proven techniques.

What Drives At-Home Agent Adoption? Not surprisingly, cost reduction is the primary factor driving the adoption of at-home agents. Organizations look for cost savings in three categories: a lower pay scale for at-home agents (often two to three dollars per hour less than for an on-site staff) because they do not need to drive to an office, purchase work clothes, or buy lunch. (Many companies believe that they should share in these savings, but keep in mind that at-home agents’ electricity bills generally increase substantially, so they incur offsetting expenses.)  The second savings category is the ability to close an office building, reducing real estate and occupancy costs; most companies using at-home agents talk about these savings. The third savings category is also staff-related: reduction in agent attrition rates, better attendance, and improvements in schedule adherence.  All companies using at-home agents report a very significant decrease in staff attrition and an increase in morale. Of course, this is after they weed out the agents who are not able to work at home and whose at-home work environment is not conducive to professional conversations.

Other factors cited in favor of using at-home agents are the need for business continuity and the desire to reduce hardware costs. Managers are still debating whether the company or agent should be responsible for their PC, network connectivity, and other technology expenses. Some companies believe that it’s fair to ask agents to pay for their hardware and network fees, considering this an important cost-savings issue. Others point out that practical aspects of this decision may override the benefits. If everyone has a different PC, troubleshooting technical glitches can become expensive. Additionally, without good and readily available technical support, small issues may turn into lengthy outages, hurting contact center service levels. Therefore, having agents purchase and maintain their own technology may be a short-term savings that costs more in the long run. Alternatively, to avoid these issues, some companies supply a standard PC but require agents to pay for their own network connectivity.

Challenges of At-Home Agent Programs: The most challenging aspect of implementing an at-home agent program is making sure the right people are staffing these jobs. To address this issue, many companies allow only their top performers to work from home. To set expectations about roles and responsibilities, an established best practice is to use a work-at-home contract that specifies the necessary work environment, all job requirements, and performance goals. Most companies that use work-at-home contracts have a zero-tolerance policy. Their contracts generally require at-home agents to have a home office or dedicated workspace where they can do their job without ambient noises or interruptions from children, pets, or delivery people. The contract makes it clear that after one breach, such as a dog barking, the agent will be asked to return to the office, and if they are not able to do so, they will be fired. While this may sound harsh, both sides buy into the concept because in most situations working at home is considered a privilege by both management and agents.

A second major challenge for at-home agent environments is the handling of performance coaching. In general, coaching is initially attempted over the phone. If this does not work, the agent is asked to come into the office for further coaching. As a result, many companies that use at-home agents try to keep their employees relatively close to their office. A couple of companies said that they only allow people who are within one hour or fifty miles of their office to work at home. However, another reason for wanting agents to remain in close proximity to the office is so that they can commute to the office in case their home environment is having technical issues that cannot be resolved on a timely basis. This may result in some downtime and understaffing, but it keeps it to a minimum.

A third challenge with the at-home work model is security. This issue still needs work, as there is no bulletproof method for securing a work-at-home environment. Some organizations require that systems be wired directly into their network; some use a Citrix desktop that has a security layer; others do not allow agents to load anything locally onto their PC; and a few organizations use home auditors to conduct surprise visits. (Talk with your human resources and legal departments before using home auditors for spot checks, as this presents its own set of potential issues.)

Other Considerations: Going “green” is not yet a primary driver for employing at-home agents, but it is a theme that managers have started to consider. It’s possible that a state may give companies a tax break for using at-home agents. It’s also possible that the federal government may do something similar in the future. As this could translate into significant financial savings, it’s a good idea for companies to explore the possibility.

State employment laws create another layer of issues that employers need to keep in mind when considering an at-home agent program. These laws and regulations can present challenges, particularly for staff located in other states or foreign countries. Legal and regulatory concerns can make out-of-state agents complex to use and costly to support, which is one reason why a growing number of companies are turning to outsourcers to meet their at-home agent needs.

Final Thoughts: At-home agent programs have many advantages, starting with how much they are liked by agents, who may show their appreciation through enhanced performance. The challenge is managing these programs, particularly as they extend to the next tier of staff, who may not be as dedicated as the pioneers. Managers who introduce these programs should expect some ups and downs, as is always the case when managing people, and should seek out and adopt the best practices that are emerging in the market.

Donna Fluss is the founder and president of DMG Consulting LLC, the leading provider of contact center and analytics research, market analysis, and consulting. She is the author of The Real-Time Contact Center, the 2008 Contact Center Executive,Management Briefing, and many other leading industry reports on contact center hosting, IVR, speech analytics, performance management, workforce management, surveying and analytics, and quality management/liability recording. Contact Donna at donna.fluss@dmgconsult.com.

[From Connection Magazine Jul/Aug 2009]

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