Making Telework Work

By Rob Duncan and Simon Angove

Working from home has grown in popularity in recent years. As more employees express a desire to work at home, managers are more accepting of the idea and, thus, of implementing the telework model. According to a recent study by Skype, 62 percent of companies surveyed allow employees to work remotely, while a recent WorldatWork survey revealed that nearly one in three respondents viewed teleworking as a reward or an employee benefit.

Although working remotely is not yet viewed as the norm, today’s mobile information age provides the opportunity to work anywhere at any time. Even the federal government acknowledged this necessity by signing the Telework Act of 2010, which includes a requirement to establish telework policies. With higher gas prices and longer commutes, telework is a viable option that gives call center agents better work-life balance, especially since the latest advances in supporting technologies effectively enable remote working. For employers, telework provides access to a larger talent pool worldwide, greater employee diversity, and lower overhead costs. As such, the telework model is a good for both employees and employers.

The remote agent/telework model for the call center industry takes advantage of operational efficiencies and risk-adjusted cost models to deliver better service levels through the highest quality agents. With the right IT infrastructure and training platform, you can make the remote, at-home agent model work for your contact center.

Deploying the Right Technology: Once you have made the decision that the telework model is right for your call center, you must deploy the proper technology to effectively manage your workforce and reduce operating costs while maintaining employee retention and customer satisfaction. Often, a phone call may be the first and only opportunity to deliver superior personal service and leave customers with a positive impression.

For contact center agents, like many “transaction” employees, balancing staff schedules can often be quite ineffective and daunting. Overstaffing results in the bottom line suffering, while understaffing results in low customer service levels. Thus, effective workforce management balances staffing needs with forecasted customer demands. Whether in a brick-and-mortar call center or remotely, delivering better customer service at a lower cost is the result. Cloud-based business collaboration technologies, like workforce management solutions, enable remote working arrangements and provide cost savings to manage overstaffing and understaffing issues.

An on-demand workforce management solution provides all the benefits of an on-premise workforce management solution – reduced labor costs, increased revenues, and improved customer satisfaction – without a large, up-front capital investment, further improving the financial benefits of using the at-home model. Thus, the right scalable, on-demand workforce management system can help you reach the following business goals:

  • Supporting a distributed global workforce by communicating to each employee in his or her local time
  • Managing workload better by identifying the at-home information workers who are available for immediate, extra hours and who have the skills needed for a particular shift, then sending a notification to them while limiting the number who sign up for these hours
  • Scheduling workload based on employee preferences, allowing agents to increase their availability both on a one-time or long-term basis – thus giving them a tool to help them define their own availability and drastically reducing the amount of overhead spent on dictating schedule template requirements

The next technology component of an at-home agent model is developing and using social media platforms to enhance your call center’s corporate culture through the telework model. One such example is that agents are able to mirror face-to-face interactions found in brick-and-mortar call centers by setting up their own online groups for socializing with colleagues and receiving feedback and support from team leads in a virtual setting.

With email, texting, instant messaging, and social media, remote agents can stay connected with their managers and coworkers. Furthermore, by using on-demand workforce management applications, you can schedule employees in the right place at the right time to make the telework model work.

Training Is Key: In the call center, we often say, “It takes months to find a customer, but only seconds to lose one.” Since it only takes one bad customer experience to change your brand perception, an investment in agent training is a critical foundation for success.

Popular shows such as The Office and comics such as Dilbert may poke fun at the dreaded corporate training sessions, but there is validity in both the attitude and ineffectiveness of daylong lectures. In the past, everyone was taught the same way, at the same pace, in a brick-and-mortar classroom. Not surprisingly, most at-home providers replicate this approach and simply upload their training content online while conducting lectures over the phone. This results in isolated employees who find it harder to learn and have higher attrition and lower learning retention while using time inefficiently.

To combat this, virtual online learning programs can be implemented to help agents increase knowledge retention in less time. These programs combine interactive instructor-facilitated classes with personalized, self-directed courseware and socially based learning. By using virtual communities of learning to support different learning styles, agent training is both more effective and efficient. Towards this goal, a successful virtual training program should:

  • Open doors: Provide opportunities for your current trainers and subject matter experts to co-facilitate with expert online instructors
  • Encourage engagement: Enable employees to interact with and solve real-world problems within a community of other learners and teachers
  • Build a community: Training should be continuous, so employees are able to learn as they work. Through social network sites, remote learners are able to enjoy the support of a peer-to-peer community

According to a report from The Telework Coalition, businesses save an average of $20,000 a year for each full-time employee who works remotely. With the right IT infrastructure, including a workforce management solution and employee engagement platform, paired with an effective training platform, the telework model can easily do this. Telework, when done properly, “is a business power tool,” says Kathie Lingle, executive director of WorldatWork’s Alliance for Work-Life Progress, which can provide “impressive increases in employee engagement, productivity, and profitability.”

Rob Duncan is chief operating officer of Alpine Access, a provider of virtual contact center solutions and services. Simon Angove is chief executive officer of GMT Corporation, a provider of workforce optimization solutions for the contact center.

[From Connection Magazine November 2011]

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