The future of work, it would seem, is virtual. Technology has made it possible for workers to avoid the long commute and work comfortably at home. But transitioning from a delivery center model to an at-home contact center operation is not all smooth sailing.
Steve Mosser, CEO of Sensee, which provides both homeworkers and the technology to enable at-home agents for large consumer facing businesses such as retailers, financial service and other consumer-facing brands, said that the next generation homeworking (Homeworking 2.0) is now being used by some of the largest and most successful businesses.
The Changing World of Work
“Technology, new HR practices and modern working culture have been factors in driving homeworking usages, extending its usage to customer service departments, administration and other common operational functions,” he said. “It has been proven to be a viable, effective and highly efficient option – achieving much more than simply saving money on office space.”
Jaime Nunez, senior vice president of US operations and IT for HGS, which has contact center operations in the US, Colombia and Jamaica, agreed, but cautions that companies wanting to make the move to virtual agents need to ensure that they assess workers before the transition.
HGS currently employs 140 at-home agents in the USA, with plans to increase that to 250 by the end of 2015 and then expand this homeworking model to Colombia and Jamaica. All of the at-home agents service health insurance company clients. “Performance measures, in terms of KPIs, quality, attendance and productivity, are defined for that agent to earn the privilege of being awarded an at-home position,” Nunez said, adding that the agent is also required to maintain superior performance in order to maintain the at-home position.
Nunez identified several benefits to this path. First, he said, expectations are set and adhered to. “If the agent performs as expected, he is rewarded. This sets the tone for future performance-growth coaching and rewards,” he said.
Nunez added that the agent learns the culture of the brand, of HGS and of peers and leaders. “The agent has frame reference to expectations and the agent working to support and the brand which agent represents. Agent takes brand and HGS culture home,” he said.
Mosser emphasized that technology has played a key part in this evolution. “Today, high-speed broadband and home computing are pervasive and key enablers for homeworking. The technology now exists to support every single imaginable business process virtually, while providing employers with the highest levels of visibility, control, security, compliance, scalability and resilience,” he said.
Nunez agreed adding that the only way to successfully deploy a distributed at-home agent model is through using cloud based technology, which provides a number of benefits.
The Power of Cloud
Cloud-based technology offers immediate access to the most current technology from virtually anywhere provided that the agent has a laptop, an internet connection and a phone. Nunez said that it is ideally suited for those organizations with seasonal peaks and valleys since new agents can be provisioned in near real-time with no investment in hardware, software or real estate facilities.
Agents must maintain superior performance in order to maintain the at-home position – Jaime Nunez, HGS
It is also ideal for time sensitive engagements where there is no time to provision new hardware/software since a cloud based solution can be operational in a fraction of the time that it takes for a CPE based solution.
Cloud based technology will still provide the tolls commonly found in CPE based solutions such as:
- Real-time and historical reporting – so that management has a pulse on all current Contact Center activity
- Call recording and call monitoring – so that standards of excellence can be adhered to
- Cloud based technology will not only enable your agents to take phone calls from literally anywhere – but also respond to e-mail inquiries and web chat from anywhere. This enables them to have a full view of the customer experience.
Nunez added that open cloud based solutions can integrate with virtually any CRM in order for an agent to receive a screen pop – and maximize his/her productivity while enhancing the customer experience.
Security is also often a concern. Matt Driscoll, SVP of Operations at Alorica, said that to maintain security, employers should require that remote workers use locked-down desktops that require multiple points of security throughout the network.
“Such measures should include curbing off-site agent access to sensitive and personal private data, so that both corporate and consumer information remains confidential,” he said.
Although the nearshore could benefit from such a model, Nunez cautioned that if an agent is working from a location with inadequate bandwidth, call quality could degrade.
Getting the Human Part Right
The human management aspect can be a concern in an at-home model, but Mosser said that the deployment of sophisticated HR practices can be successful in overcoming the barrier of trusting employees when they are out of sight of management.
“We now can easily identify who is working, what they are doing and measure productivity. It’s become a non-issue in the homeworking sphere. All the traditional ‘people’ activities – from recruitment to performance management, are now efficiently performed virtually,” he said.
Sensee has also identified the need to keep skills and knowledge fresh in the Homeworking 2.0 environment. The company uses ‘push’ and ‘pull’ training techniques to ensure relevance and responsiveness as part of Learning and Development programmes.
They have built a proprietary, unique virtual training capability (Class-e) that allows trainees to prepare for courses, undergo training, interact (raise their hands, like, be polled, use role play, webcam, etc.) during training, assess understanding, access a vast course library, and share knowledge between training events. Virtual team rooms allow agents to ‘break out’ in pairs or in teams to role play and/or complete assignments.
“Continuous L&D is directly correlated to higher employee engagement levels, which in turn, is directly correlated with overall organizational profitability,” Mosser said.
Enjoying the Benefits
Mark Minorik, Alsbridge Director, advised that before scaling, test in pre-determined markets to validate the approach, support, policies, and end-to-end solution. He recommended creating a communication plan for both internal and remote agents, and ensuring that you have a fully vetted business case that looks at everything from compensation, real estate, labor, technology satisfaction and other success measures. “Consider outside help if this seems daunting,” he said.
We now can easily identify who is working, what they are doing and measure productivity. It’s become a non-issue in the home working sphere — Steve Mosser, Sensee
Mosser stressed the benefits of Homeworking 2.0, explaining that given the virtual nature of homeworking, the very best people are sourced, recruited and then deployed, whatever the requirement. “Through sophisticated virtual recruitment techniques, we can now find people who care, who are passionate about their work and have the closest possible experience and affinity with their employers,” he said.
At-home models are also praised for creating happier workforces – and in a contact center environment where attrition rates are traditionally high this can play a significant role in improving employee loyalty.
“Homeworkers often can’t or don’t want to commute,” Mosser said. “With homeworking they are able to access rewarding employment, can effectively balance their work and their domestic responsibilities, and are also able to engage with real career development as if they were in a traditional workplace.”