Contact Centers Grapple with How to Sustain—and Grow—Remote Workforces


Not long ago, as I walked the floor of a contact center, the voice of a customer service rep echoed toward me across mostly vacant cubicles.

As his call ended, I approached. Noting the stress ball he was crushing, I said, “Tough call?”

He nodded.

“What’s it like managing those without all your peers here?”

“Well, at least there are a few of us left here to talk to,” he grinned.

As a remaining worker—who had been hired, trained, supervised and supported in the era of on-site camaraderie—it was clear he found what support he needed from those still present on site. Yet months had passed since the pandemic first struck and most of those co-workers, who had once filled hundreds of cubicles across multiple floors of the call center, were gone.

Some had been let go or moved on to other companies. A portion of them would never return, for a variety of reasons. Now, some of his new “co-workers”—perhaps even his supervisor—were people this worker might never meet face to face. They formed a new wave of workers who were already being recruited, interviewed, trained and managed without ever (or rarely) setting foot in the call center.

Scenes like this are common today. They represent a whole new phase of workforce management for call centers responding to the pandemic. The earliest phase involved quickly transitioning workers to remote work. The second was about establishing basic expectations and processes to support quality outcomes.

But now, as working from home will likely remain the norm for many, call centers face a new test—how to reshape hiring and performance management practices to bring “never on-site” workers into the fold. Finding, integrating and sustaining these new call center workers brings tough new challenges.

The Long-Term Effects of Stress

Looking at the experience of the first wave of WFH contact center reps—those who were formerly on-site workers—can provide useful insights into managing what, for many companies, will continue to be hybrid workforces.

How are things going? How are current remote workers handling ongoing work stress in their home offices? Many managers I’ve spoken with say that employees don’t seem to be asking for help or sharing new ways to incorporate healthy breaks.

“Some are just sitting at their desk smoking all day,” one said. Unfortunately, statistics seem to support this. A July 2020 Wall Street Journal article noted, “Executives at Marlboro-maker Altria Group pointed to the trends Tuesday and said they have been significant enough to slow the years-long decline in U.S. cigarette sales.”

A speaker at a National Association of Tobacco Outlets event took it even further, noting that “if people continue to work from home more and commute less, that decline could be even smaller.”

Work conditions at home are often less than ideal. Many people live in small apartments with several others and their home internet may struggle to support everyone’s needs. Employees, including supervisors, in some cases are working in a walk-in closet or on a card table set up by the bed—not ergonomically supportive setups. This can mean a call center worker’s day consists of getting out of bed, walking four feet to their workspace, putting in a long day, then having perhaps a few hours of leisure (or cooking, homework supervision and household chores) before going to sleep not far from the place where they will rise in the morning and repeat the cycle.

What is the mental health impact of such scenarios? According to an August 2020 article in Michigan Health, “‘Depression, alcohol, other substance misuse and anxiety have all skyrocketed because of COVID,’ says Sagar Parikh, M.D., professor of psychiatry and associate director of the University of Michigan Comprehensive Depression Center. ‘It’s having an impact on the business bottom line because sick employees mean decreased productivity and increased accidents at work.’”

For supervisors, whose value to the organization ripples across all those they manage, the pressure to be “always on” can be especially powerful, particularly if those they manage work flexible or extended work hours, meaning their need to be available can also be stretched. Supporting managers—and all existing workers—and preparing incoming workers to be healthy and productive is a vital priority for employers.

Integrating Wellness with Work

One bright spot in the outlook is that Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs)—which provide services such as short-term counseling, treatment referrals, employee assessments, organizational assessments and employee education—have become ubiquitous among employers. A 2019 survey of Society for Human Resource Management members found that 91% of organizations offered an EAP, “up from 79% in 2015.” Often underutilized because employees are not aware of them, the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) reports a 57.1% increase in “get the word out” campaigns by employers during the pandemic. The i4cp also found that more than 25% were adding new EAP benefits such as extended bereavement support. Communicating these resources to workers at all levels can make a tremendous impact.

The physical effect of work from home can be significant as well. Are workers getting healthier or less healthy? While comprehensive health studies may not be available for months or perhaps years, Deborah B. Horn, DO, an obesity medicine specialist and medical director of the Center for Obesity Medicine and Metabolic Performance at UT Physicians, says they have seen a rise in patients struggling with weight issues. Why? “It has to do with several factors,” she says, “including working from home, constant access to a kitchen, snacking on highly processed foods combined with limited access to gyms, increased stress, and how their own genetics and physiology responds to these changes.”

The CDC recommends employers provide a mix of positive work culture and fitness initiatives to help remote workers stay healthy and productive. Their “health and wellness without walls” approach suggests employers consider “reimbursing all or part of their fitness center memberships, at-home exercise equipment, fitness trackers, and or healthy food delivery services.” CDC also suggests employers host periodic wellness events such as a communal “health screening, a walk/run to raise funds for charity, and an outdoor social event.” Another idea might be to invite workers to share photos of their workspaces and crowdsource ideas to improve them.

Setting Up the Workspace

Employers are rethinking the way they equip new workers. When the pandemic first forced on-site workers home, many companies organized large-scale programs to send computers, headsets and the like home. It was worth it to them to sustain continuity and avoid losing proven workers with established skills and productivity. Today, as companies are hiring new, “never on-site” workers, the logistics of the asset management piece is more complicated.

No universal approach has emerged. Companies are trying different strategies. One organization I work with has established a solid, repeatable process that has proven effective for onboarding waves of new workers. When they bring on new teams, they invite associates to come in five at a time to pick up any equipment they will need. They give them their logins and everything they’ll need to set themselves up at home. Each worker has a deadline to get set up and is expected to call in when they are ready. The organization then initiates a call with their IT department to get them up and running. Typically, they aim to complete this on the Thursday before starting work the following Monday.

There’s a risk of lost costs when equipping new, often contact or temporary workers, as well. Should employers ship computers before they start? What if the worker takes another offer after you make yours? Suppose you’ve already sent them the standard setup of dual monitors, a computer mouse, phone, keypad, headset or even a chair? If you catch it in time, perhaps the would-be worker can simply refuse shipment; at any rate, it all has to be sent back—costing time, money and introducing the possibility of damage or loss. While figures are not yet available on how often this happens, many companies are building in 10% for lost assets.

One company has taken a hybrid approach. The first week on the job, the employee uses their own devices with the work software loaded on it; after a week, they receive the full component of company-provided equipment.

When security allows, some contact centers stay with the “bring your own device” approach. Incentivizing employees for this can often make good business sense. The cost of providing equipment can add up: perhaps $600 for the computer system and another $50-$100 to ship. Offering a bonus or cash reward such as a $200 stipend for employees who use their own equipment, is roughly $500 cheaper than the $700 it would have cost to provide a machine.

Tackling Training

Both formerly on-site and never on-site workers will need training at some point. Yet for new workers, there can be more hurdles. Without human interaction and established trusted sources to turn to with questions, without knowledge of where to find information, everything can take longer and feel harder.

Interest in augmented and virtual reality tools (AR and VR) is growing, yet AI-enhanced training can sometimes take years to build out for complex situations. One client began over a year ago and still has a long way to go to full deployment.

Many companies are finding that training doesn’t translate easily from in-person approaches. One organization put all their training online only to see a drastic drop in the participant pass ratio. These were workers who needed to demonstrate knowledge of privacy protocols before they could access records vital to their tasks. The employer had no choice but to redo the session for the entire incoming team—and it led to some thinking on how to recalibrate their training. The evolving methodology now includes three days of live sessions on workplace collaboration platforms like Microsoft Teams using a mix of instructor-led and self-directed modules allowing workers to progress at their own pace.

Sustaining Culture and Productivity

The debate over whether remote work increases or decreases productivity rages on—and perhaps in the end, it is an individual matter. Given the right temperament and personality, the appropriate tools and setting, and clear training, communication and ongoing support, it can work well. Some suggest it may provide employers with potentially high-performing workers whose health or other restrictions would preclude their ability to work on-site. Others question whether it unfairly excludes aspiring workers who live in areas lacking optimal internet.

If the pandemic has done anything, it is to reveal the resiliency and flexibility of call center workers to adapt and perform in often challenging circumstances. As workplaces continue to evolve, employers continue to define the guidelines and even certifications to help identify and develop the competencies needed to succeed in remote contact centers.

A 20+ year Human Resources veteran, Bill Messer helps employers optimize workforce performance as Contact Center Practice Manager at Hire Dynamics, a Best of Staffing award-winning commercial staffing agency that puts 10,000 to work each day across the Southeast.