At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the work-at-home model was hyped as the best approach for the contact center industry. Our research results from early in the process of quarantine indicated that when employees initially transitioned to working from home, they favored the arrangement—and indeed, there was an overall increase in performance.
However, based on recent interviews with over 40 contact center executives, the honeymoon is over. Most leaders indicated their workforces are experiencing fatigue, and they are noticing declining engagement, deteriorating performance and rising attrition.
Yet, a few companies suggested that they are performing at levels equal to or better than pre-COVID. What are these high-performing companies doing that the others are not? It appears that when companies overcome the inherent challenges of the work-at-home model, they reduce fatigue, improve performance, increase employee satisfaction and decrease attrition.
2020 Contact Center Industry Timeline
To achieve results equal to or better than pre-COVID-19 levels, it is important to first understand what changed in the contact industry during 2020, then you can determine how to adapt. Although the work-at-home model existed prior to the pandemic, the approach and environment were very different than today.
JANUARY 2020: The Old Work-at-Home Model
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, only a small percentage of agents worked from home. Many companies enacted policies whereby top performers could elect to work at home, and if performance wavered, they were required to return to the office. Outside candidates for work-at-home positions self-selected out when they felt they were unsuited for the environment, thereby creating a natural selection process. From the employer side, because they could source employees more broadly, companies focused on hiring agents thought to be uniquely adapted to working at home.
Often, consultants who engaged with organizations seeking to migrate to a virtual agent model advised that most of the current employees who worked in the center would not be successful working at home. In effect, their insight to a successful migration was to build a new workforce suited to the new strategy. Industry experts were nearly unanimous in their view that the keys to a successful work-at-home strategy were to commit to a 100% virtual workforce, hire to a distinct profile, and build unique personnel policies to sustain the at-home organization.
MARCH 2020: The Rapid Transition to Most Agents Working at Home
It only took a moment for everything to change. For most countries, March 2020 is when the COVID-19 pandemic caused a rapid move of employees from their centers to their homes.
It was impressive how quickly and successfully most companies made this shift. Companies made major unplanned expenditures to ensure their people could interact with customers from their homes, and everyone was appreciative of having a work-at-home option given the nature of the pandemic.
Yet, the entire paradigm of the work-at-home model shifted. For the first time, almost the entire worldwide customer care industry was 100% virtual.
MAY/JUNE 2020: Employees Liked Working at Home and Performance Improved
To help determine the impact of this change on the employee experience, 5th Talent International delivered a survey to more than 4,000 agents and supervisors across seven countries. According to a large majority of participants, their performance across six key performance indicators was the same or better at home than when working in the contact center.
Most employees indicated they liked working at home. When asked where they want to work after the pandemic, the top choice was a mix of splitting their time between home and the contact center, closely followed by working 100% at home. Surprisingly, only 4% of employees said they wanted to return to only working in a center.
Among the positive results, the study also identified key challenges that signaled potential threats to long-term sustainability. Challenges included significant increases in effort for supervisors to work with their teams, employees who were harboring feelings of loneliness, a general frustration with impersonal, computer-based communication and a decrease in collaboration. In short, while there were positive results from the implementation of a global work-at-home strategy, there were also indications that long-term sustainability might be a concern.
OCTOBER 2020: The Rise of Work-at-Home Fatigue
In order to check in on the status of the global move to work at home, 5th Talent International conducted a follow-up study in October 2020. Forty-one contact center leaders were interviewed to determine if the work-at-home challenges surfaced by the previous report were having an impact on their people and operations. These leaders represented more than 40,000 agents and supervisors across 11 different countries and nine major industries.
The leaders indicated they were indeed experiencing challenges. Further, many employees were experiencing work-at-home fatigue and it was impacting performance. The leaders also voiced concern that a growing negative trend with absenteeism and adherence may be an indicator of a looming employee attrition issue.
DECEMBER 2020: Contact Center Leaders Are in a Holding Pattern
Ongoing conversations through year-end with contact center leaders indicated that many were uncertain about the future trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic. This uncertainty combined with depleted budgets placed most contact center leaders and their companies in an end-of-year waiting mode.
As the year drew to a close, it was apparent that leaders themselves were experiencing work-at-home fatigue, and they were not certain about the root cause or how best to address it for themselves and their workforce.
The 2021 Inflection Point: Work-at-Home Is an Opportunity or a Risk
2021 offers an inflection point for contact center leaders where they can either seize the opportunity to lead their remote teams to a solid work-at-home model, or they can continue to operate in a wait-and-see mode while fatigue continues to grow.
If leaders successfully bridge the physical gap between their company and its employees, they will extend their culture, keep their employees engaged and reduce fatigue. If they allow the gap to widen, it will lead to disengaged employees, increased attrition, a decline in productivity and overall lower customer satisfaction.
Addressing the Challenges
According to the recent 5th Talent study, most organizations plan to have a mixed model of working at home and at the center. Most employees want to work at home most of the time, and only a handful of them want to work in the center 100%. Creating a thriving work-at-home model is now critical and, if done correctly, it enables organizations to get the best of the center and at-home approaches.
Contact center leaders whose organizations are excelling at home shared some of their best practices:
- Occasionally bring people into the center. Not all locations are able to do this, but where they are doing it, they are recognizing positive results.
- Decrease supervisor-to-agent ratios to provide more time for one-on-one interaction.
- Managers and supervisors need to become more like “life coaches” who intentionally develop each agent to become self-managing and self-learning.
- Reduce the emphasis on handle time and hold time to take pressure off the agents and focus more on resolution and customer satisfaction.
- Don’t over-monitor because it burns people out, reduces trust and they disengage from your company culture.
- Encourage supervisors to focus on agent development, which is often left behind when there is a transition to working at home.
- Utilize voice and video communication more than emails and texting because text forms of communication are less engaging.
- Allow work-at-home employees to choose split-shifts, longer breaks and flexible break times. This will help them manage their work-at-home life.
Contact center leaders need to take charge and create a plan to lead their organizations forward into a solid work-at-home model. They should start by assessing the challenges their employees are experiencing, and what their preferences are for different work arrangements. Leaders then need to create and execute an action plan to address the challenges. It is up to contact center leaders to take action to create a sustainable work-at-home model of the future.
About 5th Talent International
We are a service consulting company that has developed a methodology based on the area of research called “Meaningful Work.” Meaningful work is the magic metric for service organizations because when employees have it, they work harder, stay with you longer, deliver outstanding service, and go the extra mile to drive performance. We also developed an Excelling at Home Program, which helps you maintain your culture and create a thriving and sustainable work-at-home model. The program integrates findings from our groundbreaking work-at-home studies and our meaningful work methodology to enable you to transfer success from the contact center to the home.