Avoiding Work-at-Home Virtual Shock


The business world was turned upside down as thousands of companies were suddenly forced to send their employees home to work virtually. IT departments moved into high gear, and as executives learned that employees could gain access to company systems and serve customers from home, they breathed a sigh of relief—crisis averted.

But for employees, everything felt different. Even those who wanted to work from home were not prepared for the feeling of being on an island, unable to interact as they once did with their co-workers. Employees missed the break-room discussions, chatting out by the taco truck, and exchanging information in the parking lot on the way to their cars at the end of their shifts. Leaders in this new virtual contact center struggled to engage their employees. People felt disconnected, even if they liked working from home.

Leaders and employees noticed that the processes of engagement, like training and coaching, just didn’t work anymore. As the weeks and months wore on, many people felt increasingly disengaged with their managers and companies. People believed the situation was temporary, so leadership didn’t expect the same level of performance.

Contact Center Leaders in a Vacuum

The current business climate continues to change. Companies are consolidating, and jobs are being eliminated as employers hunt for ways to cut costs. It’s no wonder contact center managers, supervisors and team leaders are nervous about losing their jobs. In this kind of climate, should contact center leadership feel comfortable telling the executive team they are having struggles, or should they keep quiet to make sure nothing rocks their employment boat? Most executives feel things are going well, while contact center leaders continue to struggle and work in a vacuum without the right leadership skill sets, tools and strategies for the virtual work-at-home environment.

Yes, there are video conferencing platforms that engage employees for team meetings and coaching, but the brick-and-mortar feeling is gone. Let’s face it; companies hire “people” people to interact with customers, and now these “people” people are working at home alone.

Centers Are Beginning to Feel the Virtual Shock

Virtual shock is the tipping point when an employee in a virtual or work-at-home environment suddenly has a change in their attitude and/or behavior. The employee usually can’t identify that moment, but it can come with a variety of feelings. It can be the lethargic feeling that their work is boring, or they may feel disconnected from their manager or organization. Employees may just feel they don’t like their job anymore. This emotional letdown can cause individuals to not work at their normal productivity or creativity level. They may come to work late, want to use more PTO time than normal, and even think about quitting.

Virtual shock can occur even if the employee loved their job in the past or enjoys working from home. It takes both leaders and employees by surprise and ultimately impacts employee satisfaction and performance. As employees feel this virtual shock, the chatting and texting can quickly turn into a rumor mill. In a virtual environment rumors can quickly go viral. These rumors impact utilization because people are busy trying to figure out what’s going on instead of serving customers.

Lost in the “Virtual Hallways”

There is all kinds of movement in our contact centers. Employees have team meetings, round tables and coaching sessions. For leadership, there is even more movement—strategy meetings, quality assurance, workforce management meetings and a variety of other activities that help ensure success.

When leaders and employees have virtual shock that isn’t addressed, people start getting lost in the “virtual hallways” on their way to activities. People may stop and move the load of laundry from the washer to the dryer. They may throw a few extra balls for their golden doodle or take some time to unload the dishwasher. For some employees, it’s a few minutes extra playing a video game, making a “quick call” to their mom to check in, or texting a friend.

People also get lost in the “virtual hallways” at the start of their shift, and to and from breaks and lunches. Coaching sessions, QA meetings, team meetings and learning round tables don’t start or end on time, which quickly puts more challenges on the utilization and staffing requirements. This causes more stress for both agents and leadership, not to mention lost productivity time.

Virtual Shock Affects the Bottom Line

As people get lost in the virtual hallways and agents are not as productive, utilization can continue to be affected. This adds up to lost minutes and hours of customer interface, day after day, week after week, month after month, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars for companies.

Leaders, trying to find their teams, start chasing down employees in the virtual hallways. When that doesn’t work, the organization adopts accountability strategies to get people into the desired activities. Employees then begin to feel management doesn’t care and that the company is really only interested in making money. Employees become disengaged in their work, even if they had been superstars in their previous brick-and-mortar environments.

Employees in virtual shock now feel discouraged. The pace of their voice talking with a customer or the typing of emails, chats and texts to a customer slows down, impacting productivity. Organizations now need more employees to do the same volume of phone, email, chat, texts, and social media interactions with customers. Labor costs can rise.

Customer satisfaction and sales revenue can be impacted as well. Organizations are now understaffed, and customers grow weary of the messages on the IVR addressing the long wait times. That means more pressure. Now leadership wants to make employees “more accountable,” and the cycle continues. Employees can become more and more unattached to their customers, their co-workers and leadership.

Employee retention can plummet when virtual shock takes hold of the organization. Since contact center companies are hiring across the globe, there are a lot more contact center positions to apply to. Employees feel that grass is greener on the other side. Employee attrition goes up, starting an accelerated cycle of more sourcing, recruiting and new-hire training classes—all of which costs thousands of dollars off the bottom line.

New Leadership Skills and Strategy Needed

Executives understand that leadership at all levels need skills that truly engage employees in a virtual work-at-home environment. With this engagement, leaders can drive performance. However, contact center leadership continues to struggle on how to do this. Accountability only goes so far, and leaders agree that the organization performs better when employees want to come to work and serve customers. New leadership strategies and skills need to be deliberately reengineered for this new virtual environment.

The first step is acknowledgment. Employees need to hear that their leaders understand they aren’t meeting the engagement level that employees need in a virtual work-at-home environment. Employees are looking for transparency. It’s OK if leaders don’t have all the answers. Employees don’t expect executives to be perfect, but employees do expect transparency and honesty from their leaders.

The second step is to realize that “the people know the answer.” Employees know what they need and want—so ask them. Get personal with your employees. Have team meetings where the team delegates someone to bring their ideas to a focus group. Post all the ideas on a discussion board, highlighting the top 10. Employees understand that companies can’t do everything they suggest, but acknowledging the ideas—even the crazy ones, like giving everyone a $20,000 bonus—is important. This demonstrates that leadership is listening. Now you have the attention of the entire employee base.

The third step is to let the employees cultivate a few of those ideas and utilize a pilot program to see how the employees as a whole like them. Include a once-a-week survey or utilize a discussion board for comments on the “pilot program.” When employees own the process, they own the outcome. Don’t underestimate your employees. Remember, “the people know the answer”—so ask them.

The fourth step is over-the-top communication. Communicate everything so rumors don’t start. Communicate both the positive and negative. Communicate the “why.” Communicate multiple times a day using multiple channels. This may seem like a huge amount of communication, but people tend to gravitate to different channels. Again, this isn’t about forcing them to one channel; it’s about engaging them in the channel they prefer and explaining what’s going on. Leadership should consistently do this to build the trust of the employees.

Yes, this all takes time. Leaders will spend the time either way: By being strategic on the front end and making deliberate decisions on how to engage employees or on the back end doing damage control—more performance management, more verbal and written warnings, and more schedule changes. They will spend more time talking with employees to get them back on track again, reducing utilization. So taking the time to put together a new virtual communication strategy is critical to employee engagement and success.

Companies are attempting to apply a brick-and-mortar structure to a new virtual work-at-home framework, but it doesn’t work. It never will. How leaders talk with, coach and engage with employees, and how employees interact in their new work environment all have to be reengineered. Leaders need new strategies and skills that not only work but thrive in a work-at-home environment.

Vicki Brackett is author of “The Leadership Toolbox.” She recognized as a subject-matter expert on virtual/work-at-home environments. She has written for and has been interviewed by Forbes, Fast Company, Fortune Magazine, CEO Magazine, IPMA-HR, Training Magazine, CFO Magazine and other publications and podcasts on employee engagement, leadership development and work-at-home strategies.