WFH – challenges, opportunities and the new norm

Teleworking – “work-from-home” or “home-office” – has been a necessary practice for many firms and workers during the lockdown period of the COVID-19 crisis. During this phase, societies have undergone a large scale “forced experiment” where sectors, firms and people have continued to operate while being physically separated, provided they had the necessary technological, legal and digital security conditions. COVID-19 has shattered any myths there may have been around why people should not work from home. A NY Times article reported that apart from being distracted by home schooling and daytime television, 22% of companies said that there was no impact, or a boost on productivity in recent weeks. The article also reported that two-thirds of businesses reported that 75% or more of their workforce were working remotely, while before the lockdown, 56% of companies had 10% or fewer employees working from home.

 

However, the big question is, why wasn’t this the norm anyway? For years the usual operating model for many collections operations has been based on using large number of collectors based in call/contact centres and the concept of collectors working from home was seen very much as a “nice to have.” Admittedly, there were other considerations, such as data security, performance measurement and compliance — but none of these are overwhelming, particularly given the benefits of digitisation. The mindset has always been influenced by the word “trust”, often used with a negative connotation. Maybe home working will indeed become the “new norm”, but perhaps it should have been that way in the first place. Let’s see in more detail how telework affects agent productivity.

How does telework affect productivity?

Telework has been crucial to sustain production during the crisis, but its effects on productivity are unclear. In the short term, compared to the pre-crisis period, the exceptional conditions under which telework was implemented may well have lowered productivity for those who were able to work from home. In a recent interview, Nick Bloom from Stanford University, who previously identified important gains from telework under normal circumstances among Chinese call-centre workers, emphasised that “We are home working alongside our kids, in unsuitable spaces, with no choice and no in-office days. This will create a productivity disaster for firms”. Indeed, a survey conducted by one of Japan’s research institutes during the lockdown period confirms decreased self-reported worker productivity. Conversely, a poll among US hiring managers showed that managers were more likely to have experienced short-term productivity gains rather than losses due to remote work, suggesting that productivity losses during the crisis are by no means an inevitable outcome.

Other reports, such as one by Bloomberg, site why WFH doesn’t work for some call centers in countries such as Philippines, where US and French companies employ a large call center workforce. Regardless of whether call center employees work from home or from central office, the industry could face a growing risk if clients hit by coronavirus-slowed economies try to cut costs by replacing Philippine operations with chatbots powered by artificial intelligence, says Bain’s Harris. “Recessions have historically accelerated automation,” she says. “Habits may have shifted, which gives companies some freedom to use those potentially less expensive services. The economic pressure makes it more compelling.” 
Telework can improve firm performance by raising worker satisfaction and thus worker efficiency, for instance through better work-life balance, less commuting and fewer distractions, leading to more focused work or less absenteeism. It is, however, possible that worker satisfaction may decrease with telework, e.g. due to isolation, unintentional overtime, fusing of private and work life, or inappropriate working environment at home. On another level, the more widespread adoption of telework may also generate important spill-over worker satisfaction effects, by reducing traffic congestion, carbon and particulate matter emissions and lowering housing prices especially in high density urban areas.

 

Telework can also improve firm performance through facilitating cost savings. Telework can directly lower capital costs by reducing office space and equipment required by the company. Labour costs can be reduced as telework enlarges the pool of available workers for firms, increases the skill supply and improves the match between jobs and hires. A complete shift to remote working in fact implies a substantial reduction in trade-costs for services faced by firms, broadening thus their ability to draw on a global talent base. In addition, hiring costs may decrease if higher employee satisfaction results in reduced workforce turnover. Firms offering telework may also attract competent workers at lower than usual wages – in particular when combined with other attractive measures such as flexible hours.

On the other end of the spectrum, worker efficiency may also decrease with telework as it reduces the number of in-person interactions, which impairs communication, knowledge flows and managerial oversight. A wide range of evidence supports the belief that personal meetings allow for more effective communication than off-line or remote forms such as emails, chat, or phone calls. The lack of personal interactions can also decrease knowledge flows among employees and affect company culture. To the extent workers learn through interactions with colleagues they may acquire skills through learning-by-doing more slowly. Also, deviations in operating procedures, ways to treat with customers, may appear as workers are going to work in the isolation of their homes.

Overall, for firm-level productivity to increase with telework it is crucial that worker satisfaction increases enough to balance the potentially negative effects on communication, knowledge flows and managerial oversight. The relative strength of these channels mainly depends on the intensity of telework: the negative effect due to the lack of personal interactions becomes stronger with telework intensity, as opportunities for in-person communication diminish, while worker satisfaction improves with low levels of telework but may suffer from ‘excessive’ teleworking, e.g. due to loneliness or blending of private and professional life. Worker efficiency therefore improves with low levels of telework but decreases with ‘excessive telework’, implying a ‘sweet spot’ where worker efficiency – and thus productivity – is maximised at intermediate levels of telework, although it should be noted that the exact form of this relationship likely varies with the relative importance of these factors with regards to sector and occupation. 

Communication best practices for your remote team

 

Hearing the voice of leadership giving clear direction and guidance and seeing familiar faces, makes a big difference in keeping your WFH agents motivated.

  • Hold a brief daily company and/or team meeting led by a member of leadership team. Use this opportunity to communicate essential company updates, events and goals through video conference technology [e.g., Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Team, Slack] to connect the call center team with leadership team and with one another.
  • Instant messaging/chat is your go-to tool for individual and small group communication throughout the day. Broadcast chat helps leadership send out quick messages to the remote team. 
  • One-on-one meetings, preferably with webcam on, give supervisors and employees the opportunity to communicate clearly about goals, historical performance, and career growth and progression. “You should make it a 360 and really hear back from the employee and what they want to see in the business. This should happen at least once a month, if not twice a month, or weekly if possible.”
  • Email is best for high-level communication, especially as a follow-up to your daily team meeting. When agents are dialing, they’re typically not checking their email—nor do you want them to. So reserve email for communication that isn’t time sensitive.
  • Have a remote communication plan for handling call escalations. Is an escalation now going to be taken as a call back? Or are you going to transfer the call to a supervisor? What if the supervisor’s not available?

Accountability tools when managing work from home agents

 

Your agents are now working from home. So the question is, how are you going to monitor their time and productivity? You need tools that provide real time reporting and historical analytics. You want a software system that shows in real time the progress of work of your at-home agents, with a clear dashboard to monitor every employee and their actions as well as seeing who the top performers are. Equally important to watch in real time is the progress of your call campaigns and accounts being worked. Obviously, you want a software to ensure that agents follow the centralized collections strategy, stay on the script and follow compliance regulations. Critical is also the ability to monitor and quickly resolve any customer complaints, ensuring a frictionless customer experience.

In contrast to real time reporting, historical reports are metrics to analyze the next day or for whatever period you want to track trends. Understand how at-home employee paid time is spent, agent performance, and how your portfolio is progressing. Tracking productive agent time becomes particularly crucial when operating a remote call center, in order to ensure that agents are on track during their scheduled hours.

When you operate a physical call center, there’s an audible bustle and energy caused from having many agents in one place, working together toward the same goal. While working from home is different, there are many ways to create positive connections with shared activities that continue to build a relationship and common practices in the way that the job is done. Besides the daily meetings mentioned earlier, make sure there’s a way to recognize people. Show leaderboards, and offer loads of public praise and acknowledgement whenever you get the opportunity. You can use webcam meeting tools to encourage recreational interaction for your team with games, virtual happy hour, celebrating birthdays, and so much more. Onboarding for the remote call center operation should also be quick and easy. Finally, make sure your call center agents know

specifically what the steps are to evolve in their jobs. This gives them incentive to focus on achieving their goals.

A future vision for remote collections operations

The uncertainty and difficulty caused by the COVID-19 outbreak has forced all industries to get creative in order to remain competitive. Call centers are no exception. Work from home call center operations are discovering new ways of managing productivity and driving profits. Hiring remote agents expands the talent pool and geographic options. And, working at home offers flexibility and opportunity for modern employees, especially Millennials and Gen Z to join. Contact us to find out how you can leverage our technology to build and manage a true remote workforce and discuss ways to further digitize your collections operations.

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