In 2020, the sudden shift to work-from-home (WFH) status for contact center employees felt chaotic and temporary.
In 2021 it became a necessary, but less than optimal, way to keep businesses moving forward.
But by the end of 2022, and in the first quarter of 2023 it’s clear that WFH is a permanent fixture in the contact center landscape.
Employees have come to appreciate the benefits of a non-office-based role so fully that remote options and flexible schedules are now the primary drivers of contact center hiring and retention, closing in on compensation.
The stopgap measures companies used to weather the COVID-19 pandemic storm are now expected features of today’s contact center jobs.
Consider this: before the pandemic just 6% of contact center employees were remote, according to EmployBridge’s Voice of the Hourly Contact Center Worker in 2021. Today, more than 70% are WFH.
Amid this shift, episodes of “The Office” look increasingly quaint. Recently, a panelist discussing today’s customer service jobs climate was asked if we’ll ever go back to primarily office-based work.
“We’ll go back on site,” she said, “when it’s nostalgic to do so.”
Like pay phones and VCRs, office space has started to slip into the realm of inventions deemed no longer necessary.
If the majority of contact center employees wish to work remotely, companies that are staunchly opposed to having a remote-first workforce will be left behind.
One client learned this the hard way when trying to enforce a return to office this year. This large insurance company had originally hired its current contact center team as remote employees. But when the leadership decided to bring everyone back at least three days a week, the response was immediate and dramatic. The entire function needed to be restaffed.
Toward a New Balance
So, how can companies operate contact centers successfully, weighing both their staffing and productivity needs and the desires of current and prospective talent?
The 2022 EmployBridge Voice of the Hourly Worker Survey, conducted with 1,596 contact center and business support professional participants, provides insightful guidance.
Respondents were asked about the primary reasons they accepted a job. The No. 1 factor remains pay, but other attraction drivers have shifted. Notably, flexible shift/schedule has risen from the eighth most important driver in 2019 to the fourth most important in 2022. When it comes to retention, liking their work schedule is employees’ top driver apart from pay.
The correlation between the timing of these trends and the fact that most contact center workers have been remote for the past 2.5 years is undeniable.
Remote work provides the flexibility and schedule control that employees want. It also saves money on expenses like transportation, restaurant meals, childcare, and work clothing. All this adds up and is all the more coveted in these inflationary times.
The non-monetary benefits are perhaps equally valuable. No commuting equals more time for family, friends, and outside interests.
Regardless of whether a company is still hoping for hybrid or going all-in on WFH we’re seeing clear trends — and several successful strategies to consider in 2023.
“In the Building” Blocks
The lack of interest in returning to an in-person workspace is so widespread that some job postings that mention on-site requirements don’t get any applicants at all.
The investment in office space is a real, fixed cost for many companies. But we are counseling clients to use the building for functions that truly require the in-person setting and enable the customer service function to WFH.
The on-site labor shortage for customer service is so critical that a recruiter recently said she’d much rather work on filling a $15/hour third-shift remote role than a $16/hour on-site one.
The message here is clear and practical: workers will take less money to get the location/flexibility they want. For the same role, we can typically secure a remote hire at $16/hour but will need to go to $20/hour-plus for in-person.
The lack of interest in returning to an
in-person workspace is so widespread that some job postings that mention on-site
requirements don’t get any applicants at all.
Some companies are diverting their office space rent into better training and employee assets to make WFH easier, and it’s working very well.
We’ve seen attrition reduced by up to 12% very rapidly. The key is to ensure training is stellar, employees feel connected to one another and the company’s purpose, and that they still have opportunities for growth and learning.
Pay must remain competitive as well. Voice of the Hourly Worker Survey respondents indicated that 57% of them earn $16/hour or greater, and only 21% earn less than $16/hour.
It’s essential to stay current on the pay rates in your market. Respondents indicated that consistent increases in pay was the third most important reason they stayed in a job. And remember that pay rates need to be consistent both for new hires and current employees to ensure parity.
For companies that are unable or unwilling to raise pay rates to competitive levels, expanding the pool of WFH talent is an excellent strategy.
A current wage may not be competitive in California, but we can take it to find high caliber talent in North Carolina where it will be. With a remote framework, we can fill positions in multiple markets where wages will be competitive, and the flexible work schedule is a draw.
Training is essential for job success. But the method of training has to evolve with the environment.
Early remote training was essentially the same as in-person, just taken online. Yet in that format, it became flat and one-sided. With no on-camera participation required, employees were tuning out or multitasking. Then, on their first day, they often panicked, feeling unprepared.
A Fortune 100 company took their contact center fully remote in 2021, and we helped them stage 3,400 team members nationally. However, it soon found that their training program was the top reason employees didn’t like the job and were leaving.
In response, the company spent 2022 investing in training and improving its modules, requiring interactive exercises and on-camera interaction with trainers. They incorporated tasks to be completed each day post-training in order for employees to progress to the next day’s module. The approach resulted in greater customer feedback in new hires’ first weeks, plus better retention rates.
The evolving current best practice we’re seeing includes live sessions on workplace collaboration platforms using a mix of instructor-led and self-directed modules.
Coaching and Culture
Coaching is also evolving to fit and best leverage remote-first technology.
Many companies are doing more manager/supervisor training to ensure these employees are well-equipped to perform their duties. They are receiving guidance for having tough conversations with direct reports online, how to encourage positive behaviors with high performers, how to monitor productivity, and how to manage their own stress.
On a collaboration platform, employees can bring in a manager if they need support or to escalate an issue in real time. Nesting, call monitoring, and team huddles work for remote teams, and the need to schedule meetings and plan their outcomes makes them more intentional than casual hallway or breakroom encounters.
This model for remote work requires more hands-on effort from managers, so we recommend having each manager supervise fewer agents.
Companies are finding that geographically-dispersed teams can actually bond more easily…through virtual methods.
We’re also seeing companies using more scorecards, updating talent on their performance with regularity.
At the same time, they are using artificial intelligence (AI) to enhance engagement of remote employees. For example, one company texts contact center team members twice a week, asking a handful of questions in a playful way to ensure they are feeling good in their jobs.
From a cultural perspective, cameras are bringing employees closer than they may have been in on-site environments. Companies are finding that geographically-dispersed teams can actually bond more easily – and connect more frequently and at far less cost – through virtual methods.
AI and pulse surveys provide more accurate engagement readings from employees. If engagement is down after a town hall meeting, leaders can tell that employees didn’t like what they heard. Conversely, if engagement starts trending upward, leadership can track what event or communication preceded this upturn and look to repeat that success.
Environment and Assets
With 77% of call centers currently increasing their WFH programs and an expectation that cloud contact center agents will exceed on-premise agents by 2024, according to McKinsey, employers are starting to invest more in the employee experience.
A major struggle for remote workers is having a dedicated space where they can do a good job and control noise. Beyond computers and headsets, employers are increasingly providing stipends for creating a workable home office, like a good internet connection, ergonomic chairs, and desks.
Recovering equipment assets continues to be a financial drain on employers, with most seeing 10%-20% shrinkage reports our clients. Those that are most successful in getting equipment back have an asset retrieval team and partnerships with UPS or FedEx, providing an easy pick up or drop off option with bar coded returns. Convenience for employees needs to be prioritized to get a response.
Companies that maintain competitive wages and fully or incrementally embrace WFH and flexible schedules as essential drivers of call center recruitment and retention will fare best in the continued competition for finding and keeping top talent.
Employees are telling companies what they want. Those that listen and meet them where they are will be the winners in today’s marketplace.