As COVID-19 restrictions ease, contact center leaders are planning what their future work environment will look like. The hybrid work model, in which agents work at home but come into the center a few times a week, is gaining prominence as a way to meet agents’ demands for more flexibility, better work-life balance and the desire to spend some face time with co-workers and supervisors.
Recent research by meaningful work consulting company 5th Talent revealed that contact centers that shifted to a 100% work-at-home workforce last year are struggling with numerous challenges that threaten the sustainability of the fully remote model.
Some centers have opted to return to an entirely on-site model. But many are finding that the majority of employees are not satisfied with an either/or choice.
Ideally, employees want a mix of work-at-home and an on-site presence. (See “The Hybrid Model Is Only Part of the Solution to the Work-at-Home Dilemma,” by Ted Nardin and Brian Kearney.) This brings forth another set of challenges for adapting on-site and work-at-home processes for a hybrid model.
An important consideration is how the hybrid work model will impact company culture—the foundation for trust, engagement, teamwork and shared values. For most companies, culture took a hard hit in 2020 amid closures, layoffs and the isolation of suddenly working from home during a pandemic. Many are now in the process of reshaping the culture to align with emerging workplace models.
Culture Challenges for a Hybrid Work Environment
Traditionally, company culture evolves over time under leadership guidance and through daily interactions and close proximity of employees. But the sudden shift to remote work last year raised several barriers. As the 5th Talent report points out, work-at-home fatigue set in among agents and supervisors, driven mainly by the physical gap that separated remote employees from their supervisors and the company culture.
Replacing daily face-to-face communication, physical presence and personal conversations with virtual tools has helped to maintain workplace connections. However, it also introduced a new challenge: digital fatigue. Digital fatigue is defined as a state of mental exhaustion and disengagement that occurs when people are required to use numerous digital tools and apps concurrently and in an ongoing way.
Yet good or bad, with most people working remotely, it was a shared experience. Under a hybrid model, each employee’s circumstances and work preferences will differ. This will likely contribute to inconsistencies—whether real or perceived—in employees’ work experiences.
The hybrid model introduces several complex issues that will impact the culture:
- Which team members are in the office on which days?
- What is the ratio of on-site to at-home time? Is it the same for everyone?
- How do you maintain a connection to team members who are at home when others are meeting on-site?
- How can supervisors engage employees when some are on-site, and others are remote?
- How—and where—does training occur?
- How do leaders deal with employees’ perceptions of unfairness or exclusion when they’re working at home?
5 Considerations for Creating a Hybrid-Friendly Culture
Changing the companywide mindset about concepts such as proximity, connection and communication is the first step toward reshaping the culture to better align with a hybrid work environment. The following are five practices that will positively change the employee experience, whether your contact center staff is at home or working in a mixed-model center.
Adapt Your Communication: Think Remote-First
Make sure that remote workers do not feel that they are missing out on important events by working at home. While some team members may opt to come into the center for meetings, group activities or training, communication should be conducted virtually if even one employee works remotely.
Vary your communication approaches to keep your team engaged—employ video, phone, chat, email, online message boards and feedback tools (e.g., surveys, online pulse checks). When it comes to virtual meetings, keep it brief, have an agenda (no meetings for the sake of meetings!), and give everyone the opportunity to speak.
Be Intentional about Inclusion
In inclusive cultures, every individual feels respected, valued and supported. To be intentional about inclusion, focus on ways to create an experience for your remote workers that is equal to what your on-site employees are experiencing. Examples include:
- Participating in video celebrations.
- Keeping them informed of discussions and ideas shared at the office.
- Finding ways to reinforce the culture virtually, such as online competitions, virtual meditation, etc.
Supervisors play a crucial role in helping remote workers feel included—reach out just to check-in and see how they’re doing.
Create a Level Playing Field
Remote workers have long complained about being overlooked for opportunities. Job promotions, recognition, prized assignments and developmental opportunities often go to those who are on-site and in sight. Missing out on networking and the ability to create meaningful connections is especially detrimental to younger employees who are just beginning their work careers.
Managers and supervisors must ensure that work-from-home employees are provided with the same opportunities and rewards as those who are on-site and that there is no sense of favoritism based on proximity.
Find Ways to Make Contact More Frequently
Open, frequent communication is the key to engaging work-from-home agents, and it is also critical in a hybrid work environment. A crucial responsibility for frontline leaders is connecting remote agents with the company mission, on-site team members, shared goals and the culture. Frequent check-ins also help supervisors to stay aware of WFH agents’ health and wellness issues should employees begin to experience WFH fatigue or burnout.
Admittedly, increasing the amount of time spent communicating with team members can strain supervisors’ schedules. 5th Talent’s Nardin recommends that contact centers lower the agent-to-supervisor ratio so that supervisors can spend more time supporting individual team members. As he points out, supervisors’ roles have evolved from manager to “life coach” in remote and hybrid work environments.
Be Visible and Accessible
The days of management by walking around and executive walk-throughs may be over, but company leadership can still be visible and accessible for remote and on-site staff.
We all know how isolating remote work can be. Make sure that agents’ scope of communication is not limited to their supervisors and team members. They need to hear from company executives and senior leaders to create a stronger connection to the company culture. Once again, this should occur using a remote-first approach, for instance, via occasional virtual town halls or frequent updates (daily or weekly) via the company messaging platform. Keep in mind that if the leadership team is working on-site and most agents are working at home, it can create a perceived status bias among employees.
The Future of Work Is Employee-Centric
Workers’ priorities have shifted in the past year. Many are now searching for more meaningful work, flexibility and growth opportunities. As employers are discovering, workers are unwilling to return to the way things used to be. It’s time to delve into the wants, needs and experiences of your agents to deliver the type of supportive culture that helps people thrive and succeed.