In 1992, we ran an experiment in Inverness – inventively named “the Inverness Experiment”.
Eleven valiant volunteers from our contact centres (then called operator services) worked from home for a year. And the experiment was a success. Customer satisfaction went up, and so did employee satisfaction. However, in those days there was no broadband or wi-fi, no cloud, and very few collaboration tools (beyond email and a video conferencing unit the size of a small fridge). These technological limitations made working from home very expensive and eventually condemned the experiment to fail.
Turning to cloud, connectivity and collaboration tools
Flash forward 30 years and a monster of a more microbial variety forced many physical contact centres to rapidly lift and shift operations. This time, working from home had the “holy trinity” of cloud, collaboration tools and connectivity to rely on, making it easier and cheaper than in 1992. As well as the technology, there were other significant differences, namely that agents, team leaders and managers were not volunteers for this mass virtual working experiment. And although there were many positives, some struggled.
Why were UK workers more stressed and less satisfied?
Our ‘Autonomous Customer’ research conducted with 300 agents in late 2020 showed that UK agents and managers were more stressed, less satisfied, and more critical of their technologies than their counterparts in the US and India. The big question was whether home working itself contributed to this general feeling of malaise and, if it did, what could be done to make it better. To find out, we followed the initial research up with interviews with UK based agents, team leaders, and managers throughout 2020 and 2021 to build up a picture of how they had coped.
Finding balance with hybrid working
Our ‘Autonomous Customer’ research suggested that 71% of contact centre employees wanted to work in a hybrid arrangement in the future because they felt that their work-life balance and productivity had improved. The ability to flex in and out of the office, meant that employees could work at times they’d previously have spent commuting. There was also increased use of shift bartering and ‘payback’ schemes (where shift start, and finish times can be flexed or traded). This enabled agents to duck out for 30 minutes to get vaccinations or drop their children off at school and make up this time at the end of the shift, rather than having to take leave.
The worst of working from home
However, frustrations included complex security and privacy procedures, IT issues taking longer to fix, and new joiners struggling to feel part of a team (resulting in higher staff churn in some organisations). Agents who were in shared housing were often competing for both space and bandwidth, while for those with young children, the need for peace and quiet was problematic.
Managers who were used to leading and mentoring by walking around or sitting beside and coaching found their job considerably more complex. And it was managers and team leaders who initially said that they wanted everyone back in the office. Fast forward to the following year and many had changed their attitude once they’d become used to managing a remote workforce. Their future anxieties now lay in the fact that they were probably going to have to juggle a hybrid team, split between physical and remote locations.
Cake and camaraderie: missing the contact centre
Most critically, people missed the camaraderie and buzz of the physical contact centre (not to mention the cake). A nostalgia compounded by a hike in both abusive and complex customer contacts – 69% of agents reported increased difficultly, and 29% said they needed a discussion with a colleague or team leader to resolve one in every five customer contacts. Getting help is easy when all you have to do is swivel your chair around, but frustration quickly sets in when you’re sat alone at your kitchen table.
Collaboration tools can help rebuild some of these informal methods of coping, helping colleagues and team leaders provide help virtually. But creating a positive work environment also requires a culture shift, so people feel comfortable admitting they need help and don’t feel as if they’ll be penalised.
Metrics, monsters and maintaining morale
Contact centres have one big advantage over other knowledge working organisations when it comes to boosting morale: work demand and productivity metrics are visible no matter where agents are working. Queues, call handling times, time in wrap, time available and recordings of contacts are all available to team leaders and the broader team, helping them to see what’s going on. And ensuring that these stats and measures are equitable wherever the agent is working is essential to maintaining morale.
The trust, autonomy, and choice available under a hybrid model are all things that can improve both the employee and customer experience. But it’s easy to create a hybrid monster. In the spirit of the Inverness experiment, it’s good to admit that we don’t have all the answers and trial and error might be the best way forward. For a start, we need to answer some difficult questions about what productive and healthy contact centre work looks like. We also need to stop designing work around location and start designing it around people. We need to make the work work.
To find out more about the challenges and opportunities hybrid working holds for the contact centre, and strategies for making it a success, take a look at our recent whitepaper.
Taming the Zedonk | BT's Global unit