Going remote was just the beginning. If 2020 was about transitioning and uncertainty, consider 2021 the year of acceptance and innovation as contact centers embrace the new reality.
Eighteen months into the COVID-19 pandemic we’re faced with permanent changes. As contact centers became the “face” of many organizations, leaders have had to rethink all aspects of employees’ jobs.
From pay ranges and skill requirements to training modes and schedule flexibility, the industry is reinventing itself as demand for rapid customer support increases in nearly every industry.
Let’s rewind for a moment.
At the end of 2020, I wrote about the need for contact centers to take a new approach to hiring employees who may never work in person, and equipping them to do their jobs through training, tech assets, and talent support.
At the time, we couldn’t imagine that we’d still be operating in the same environment this many months down the road. But here we are. While sending employees to work-from-home (WFH) seemed a temporary solution at first, many organizations have now ended their office space leases and announced that they will never go back into the office.
A decision like that creates a domino effect, affecting every touchpoint in the tenure of a contact center employee: from interviewing to manager interactions.
Over the past several months I’ve heard from clients about how they’ve adapted to the challenges of 2021—the shrinking talent pool, complex economic changes, and shifting customer preferences—all while keeping the current health guidance top of mind.
The Work Environment
One client, a strong leader in the contact center space, put it this way: “If my employees are comfy at home contributing and having purpose in the workplace while balancing their households and taking care of their families, why would I insist on bringing them back into the office?”
Of course, remote is not the only option. As the Delta variant begins to recede, many companies are testing a hybrid model, encouraging a mix of remote and in-office attendance.
For companies that place great importance on being physically present in an office building, the hiring process is a steeper climb.
According to an August 2021 poll by GoodHire, 68% of Americans would choose remote working options over in-office work if possible. And a full 61% of those would accept a pay cut to be able to continue to WFH.
What we hear from job candidates across industries bears this out. There are many advantages for individuals who can fulfill their contact center roles from home. They can save on transportation costs and commute times, restaurant meals on the go, childcare, dry cleaning and clothing expenses…the list goes on.
Some contact center professionals (CCPs) have used their savings to move into bigger living quarters and create dedicated office space in their homes. It seems to be working for many of them, and employers tell us productivity remains high.
While a small number of employees prefer the office environment, the candidate pool is demonstrating a primary desire to work remotely.
But not everyone is cut out for 100% remote roles. And hiring practices are evolving to ensure candidates are well suited to their current CCP responsibilities.
Contact centers are looking to fill 30% more jobs today than before the COVID-19 pandemic. Every industry continues to grow, and the roles for CCPs are expanding: with no signs of returning to pre-pandemic levels.
The interview process too is now fully remote rather than face-to-face. This enables recruiters to get a clear sense of the candidates’ comfort with remote communication.
But the skills today’s remote CCP needs have expanded as customer preferences continue to change. Numerous studies show customers are becoming partial to chat interactions, well beyond phone or email communications, particularly more so as the pandemic pushed contact center interactions to the forefront.
As employees navigate customers’ desire for immediate responses, WFH distractions, and chat technologies, candidate evaluation tactics must become more targeted to help identify ideal candidates.
Today’s remote CCP needs to:
- Work well independently
- Hold themselves accountable
- Have good judgment and trust their instincts
- Possess strong grammar, reading, and comprehension skills (essential for chat interactions)
- Formulate coherent questions to rapidly obtain answers from supervisors, in both verbal and written forms
Based on the expectations of remote CCPs today, questions like the following improve the interview process:
- If you’ve held a remote contact center position before, what could you have done differently to be most successful?
- What could the leadership have done differently in your last remote role to help you be most successful?
- Tell me about a time you had to complete a task independently in a certain amount of time. What was it and how did you handle it?
- Tell me about a specific goal you were asked to achieve within a specific timeframe? Walk me through your process
- When working from home, how do you manage your work/life balance?
These questions help reveal more about candidate independence, timeliness, and ability to work in the home environment, with all its benefits and distractions.
In 2021 we are in a war for talent like never before. The post-2020 spike in job changes dubbed the “Turnover Tsunami” is converging with the “Great Resignation”: the trend of employees voluntarily resigning because of pandemic-related issues.
In this environment, companies should revisit their employment packages to attract top candidates. As an example, one company recently increased the amount of parental leave available to both parents, for birth and adoption. These are the kinds of substantive benefits current candidates seek.
At the 2021 Hire Dynamics Contact Center Executive Forum in September 2021, panelists noted that candidates and employees are now in the driver’s seat.
All three industry experts who spoke agreed that they’ve raised pay rates considerably while also offering retention and attendance incentives to both attract and keep high-performing talent.
Beyond more robust compensation, schedule flexibility is also appearing as a valued part of the total job picture. With remote employees who may take care of children or older family members, or with younger generations of employees who want to better define their own work-life balance, this is increasingly important.
Onboarding, Training, and Support
We’ve seen a lot of changes in training during the past year. Most notably, organizations today realize that remote employee training cannot be too frontloaded.
Typically, a company would start with a one or two-week training protocol and then send the employee into remote nesting.
But how likely is it that all aspects of that training could be put into practice immediately? Not very. Because many individuals are situational learners it’s valuable to build a repository of mini-training modules.
Many companies invested in digital platforms and software to enhance their learning management systems (LMS) and create short reference tools to be accessed in the moment they’re needed. Looking for the appropriate response to a particular issue? Search the knowledge bank by keyword and pull up a video or step-by-step guide.
Training continues to evolve and develop, with the most popular method involving a mix of remote module-based learning and real-time instructor-led remote learning.
In our remote world, companies need to pay attention to training for existing employees as well. Many supervisors and team leaders move up because they succeeded at the desks and became subject matter experts.
But technical knowledge doesn’t necessarily translate to leadership. This is a huge challenge in the contact center space, as many managers are ill-equipped to motivate and support their teams, especially remotely.
Savvy contact centers are implementing trainings for the manager level to include not just the tactical elements of supporting team members virtually when they “raise their hand” for assistance, but also how to take care of themselves. Also, in how to create healthy boundaries between home and work to avoid frustration or burnout.
As we accept that remote working environments are no longer temporary, companies should invest more resources in managers who can share their learned skills and strategies with their teams, leading to greater satisfaction and employee longevity.
The American Psychological Association’s 2020 “Stress in America” report showed that nearly 8 in 10 adults (78%) say the coronavirus pandemic is a significant source of stress in their life. And two in three adults (67%) say they have experienced increased stress over the course of the pandemic.
Coworkers who share common experiences and connections serve as a support system beyond immediate family and friends.
In traditional workspaces, coworkers were easy to find and chat with at their desks or in the break rooms. But creating a culture of community when teams are virtual is harder; it requires a more deliberate approach.
At one client company a manager sets virtual coffee breaks for small groups. They meet at a designated time and turn their cameras on for casual conversation and interaction.
Another client has a group that takes online crafting classes together. Still another arranges for a monthly team meal. She sends lunch to the homes of each of her team members, and they jump on camera and eat together at a pre-arranged time.
No matter the activity, the common thread is this: contact centers have to bring culture to their employees. They can’t come and get it. Whether it’s 15 minutes or an hour, employees need to feel valued and appreciated, heard, and seen.
As Billy Milam, CEO of staffing company Hire Dynamics often says, “People remember their first day of work and their last day of work.” Everything in between is a moment.
Little experiences can make huge impacts and create the memorable moments that add value to remote employees.
At the HD Contact Center Executive Forum 2021, panelists mentioned online gaming sessions, the sending of birthday cards, and written notes from managers to help remote team members feel connected.
Beyond gestures and activities, managers should relay support, particularly during these challenging times. Ask regularly “What do you need from me?”
With the transformation in today’s employment sector, managers need to provide empathy and sympathy rather than demanding performance despite clear obstacles.
As well, clear communication and level setting are essential for reducing uncertainty and worry for employees.
The Future Requires Remote
While the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics employment projections show little change in customer service representative roles through 2030, business support centers, including contact centers, are expected to grow during the next decade.
Clinical healthcare and social assistance sectors will continue to expand as Baby Boomers age.
Accompanying that growth we’ll see expansion of supportive, non-clinical healthcare positions. Currently we see high demand for positions related to revenue cycle management, healthcare IT, medical billing and coding, and electronic medical records.
These growing sectors and trends in our culture continue to fuel demand for contact center support.
And contact center candidates are clearly showing preference for WFH options. Remote work will continue to be widespread in either full-or part-time scenarios, as long as employees can maintain productivity.
Without the overhead of commercial real estate leases, some leaders are diverting funds to training and performance management for remote workers. They will want to see the results of those investments.
Companies that try to demand universal in-person return will have difficulty attracting top talent, especially in the current labor market.
Some companies testing hybrid workplace solutions plan phased return to office in 2022. We’ll be watching closely to see how that model fares.
Organizations that enable employees to choose the environment they believe works best for them will have the greatest advantage in recruiting and retaining outstanding employees.
Nearly two years into a remote-forward contact center landscape, best practices continue to emerge.
Companies will need to further define skillsets and supports as the ways in which they serve their customers evolve, while keeping employee needs at the forefront.