On-Trend: At-home Agents


You know something is pretty important or interesting these days if it’s referred to as being on-trend, or trending. It’s not the same as being trendy, which to my ear sounds like it’s less important than something that is on trend or trending. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, trendy is defined as: “Very fashionable, up to date, marked by superficial or faddish appeal or taste. Trending, on the other hand, is defined as: “To generate or attract a lot of attention or interest.”

Know what I wish was trending? Hats for men. Before the 1970s, hats were an essential part of any well-dressed gentleman’s accoutrements. Then, for whatever reason, they fell out of favor. Unfortunately, I have the perfect head for hats (see picture at the end of this column) but haven’t been good about wearing a hat simply because it makes me feel a bit self-conscious, like people are staring at me. But I just finished my third go-round with skin cancer on my head so maybe I’ll have to step up and be the one who makes hats on-trend.

And what about wearing suits? I never see men wearing a suit anymore, yet if you pay attention to what male celebrities who are on-trend are wearing, it’s almost always a suit. Late-night talk-show hosts are always impeccably dressed, and you don’t see celebs walking the red carpet in shorts and flip-flops.

And speaking of shorts and sandals, when did it become on-trend for men of all shapes, sizes and ages to wear shorts and sandals regardless of the weather? Here in Arizona, I see men wearing shorts and sandals in public even on the coldest days of January and February. The ensemble is usually topped by knit golf shirt stretched over a sometimes distended paunch.

I used to think this was an Arizona phenomenon because people visit here, especially during the winter, for the sunshine and thus are entitled to dress like a teenaged skater regardless of the actual weather. But I’ve discovered that when I visit family in Northern California, I’m seeing the same phenomenon—men dressed in shorts and sandals even on the coldest, grayest, foggiest, rainiest winter day.

By my estimate, maybe one in a hundred men have legs that are good enough to be displayed in public in the first place. Narrow that demographic to men over age 50 and that ratio drops closer to about one in 10,000. And men shouldn’t ever wear sandals unless they’re at the beach or poolside. Period.

Fortunately, what’s on-trend in the contact center industry is leading to much better outcomes. One trend that continues to grow in importance year-over-year is the at-home agent. Since 2009, Saddletree Research has been working closely with the not-for-profit National Association of Call Centers (NACC) tracking important industry trends, and the at-home agent represents one of the strongest trends in the industry over the past decade.

The results of our 2020 survey of contact center professionals revealed that 52% of the industry currently has some percentage, typically less than 25%, of their workforce working from home. We then asked those respondents who currently have at-home agents what their expectations are for the year ahead in terms of the number of agents they’ll have working from home. The response is illustrated in the graph.

Michele Rowan

The data indicates overwhelming success in at-home agent programs. So, what is driving this im­portant industry trend? To get to the answers, I enlisted the help of Michele Rowan, President of Customer Contact Strategies, and in my opinion, the foremost industry expert on the topic of contact center at-home workers.

STOCKFORD: Clearly there is something important happening here. What’s behind the evolution of the at-home workforce in the contact center?

ROWAN: It’s definitely been an evolution, with its roots being in staffing strategy. Plainly put, there’s always been a large population of highly qualified individuals who have been interested/curious about contact center type positions, but for many reasons, were not interested in working in an office environment with rigid work schedules. Over the years, most organizations have figured out how to get a bit more flexible with scheduling, and certainly there’s now great confidence in how to connect people to business networks safely and at reasonable cost.

STOCKFORD: Fifty percent of our research participants indicated their intent in 2020 to transition even more agents to working at home. What are executives seeing that is giving them this kind of confidence in the at-home worker strategy?

ROWAN: Security in end-to-end connectivity drives confidence, as well as hiring and performance results. Applicant pools are 200%-400% larger, qualifications are higher, and employee satisfaction and retention improve. There’s a 10-year track record of work-at-home results in the contact center environment. It’s become hard to ignore, even for those executives who personally don’t prefer or like the thought of a distributed work environment.

STOCKFORD: The question of supervision always seems to come up when people talk about home agents. How has quality management evolved to be able to accommodate remote quality monitoring and training?

ROWAN: It’s amazing what’s available today for businesses. There’s a full menu of options for quality management, performance management and training. Most companies have used call and screen recording as a security tool for the past 10 years. Now with analytics and AI, businesses can target key points of transactions and respond to them, either with human response or use of AI. And learning (both synchronous and asynchronous) is easier and more cost efficient to develop and deliver now—than it has ever been in years past. We see that continuing.

STOCKFORD: What other benefits are contact centers realizing as a result of their at-home agent strategy?

ROWAN: Work-at-home is viewed as an employee benefit now, particularly by the millennial and Gen Z populations. So, including working-from-home for part or all of a work week is a competitive advantage in terms of reaching the broadest, most talented labor pools, and keeping them.

STOCKFORD: I think the best way for contact centers to learn and understand how to transition to, manage or increase their at-home workforce is to attend the conferences that your company organizes each year. Talk a little about those events.

ROWAN: We do two types of conferences. Annually we hold the Remote Working Summit, which will be held in September 2020. That’s 20-plus speakers who share their journeys around work-at-home in the contact center and support environment, as well as enterprise remote working, in a variety of formats over 1.5 days. It’s a large crowd, mostly use-case format. We also do a number of smaller two-day workshops on remote work for contact centers, designed for heavy one-to-one exchange and benchmarking amongst attendees, on all functional areas highly impacted by remote work. Understanding what others are doing in this space, is obviously so useful, and continuously evolving. You can find more information on our website, customercontactstrategies.com.

STOCKFORD: Thanks for sharing your insights about this important and growing industry trend.

I’ll be speaking at and attending several customer conferences in the months ahead. If you’ll be at any of them, too, be sure to look me up. I’ll be the guy in the hat and suit.

The National Association of Call Centers

Did you know columnist Paul Stockford is also the editor of In-Queue, the monthly newsletter of the National Association of Call Centers? Get your free subscription and read more of his provocative commentary every month!