Thought leadership

Ongoing issues including storms and floding and transport disruption and strikes have reopened the debate about the potential for people to work more at home. Although executives equipped with laptops and tablets may opt to work from home, consideration should be given to the potential of customer service agents to be home-based instead of working from the contact centre.

Yet by the end of national work from home week in January, I was not surprised to see that there wasn’t much of a debate about customer service provision and homeworking.  

America’s contact centres have been successfully making use of homeworkers for over 30 years, reaping 13-15% cost reductions, 10% more productivity and half the attrition. But here in the UK we lag far behind and it is time we woke up to the benefits.

Firstsource Solutions has embraced homeworking and other flexible patterns for a number of years in the UK. Utilising Work at Home Agents (WAHA) makes perfect sense to us.

Firstly, rather than only being able to access workers within a small radius of one of our operational centres, we have access to the best people from a much wider talent pool. For example, we can enhance our talent base by attracting foreign language speakers as well as financial services and analytics specialists, who would perhaps not naturally gravitate to working in a contact centre environment. Secondly, homeworking enables flexible resourcing to help match our clients' call patterns. If a client has the majority of incoming calls in the morning and late evening, then some of our homeworkers would be free to cover those shifts and enjoy being free in the afternoon to make time for a hobby or childcare. Thirdly, we find homeworking aids us and our clients with business continuity capability if the bricks-and-mortar operation should be compromised during, for example, extreme weather conditions.

There are of course benefits for our agents who work at home as they can fit their job around their own varied domestic commitments. This means that we are able to motivate and increase the productivity of a wider pool of workers with attractive career offerings that meet their work-life balance needs.

So how does this work in practical, day-to-day terms? For example, one of our team leaders in Northern Ireland works a split shift from 9am-1pm, collects his children from school, helps them with their homework, before returning to his desk in the evening to complete his shift. He says this works well for him and his family in terms of work-life balance, allowing him to spend more time at home with his children, and also provides significant savings to the family budget on childcare and commuting costs.

As a seven-day-a-week operation in the UK, we offer a variety of shifts throughout that work window, including working at home. We find this arrangement also works well for particular members of staff – for example people with disabilities who cannot easily travel to any of our centres, but who can fulfill a valuable role from the comfort of their own home. We believe it is by utilising a strategic and tailored mix of these approaches that we progress most successfully as a business. Contact between staff is important, but they don't necessarily need a 'water cooler moment' every day.

Obviously, in order to keep people engaged and ensure ongoing career development we utilise online forums and chat sessions for employee interaction, as well online training courses to ensure that staff working at home have the same level of training as those in the contact centre. The advantage of an e-learning package is that it is self-directed, which can significantly reduce the time it takes an employee to finish a course. They do not have to wait for the rest of the class to catch-up, but can move ahead at their own pace as quickly as they are able to absorb the information.

But technology is the real game changer that is enabling this homeworking revolution to take place. Remotely accessible company intranets, high-speed broadband, VOIP telephone systems, email etc have made homeworking a widely available practical alternative that can be scaled up or down, depending on varying business requirements. It is now possible for modern companies to have their bricks-and-mortar operating centres complemented by a significant element of homeworking, whether for customer services, as in our case, or other elements of their business models.

There may still be some concerns holding back the UK's wider adoption of homeworking, one of which is doubtless the always hot topic of security. From our perspective, we have overcome this with thin client technology and by ensuring our Work at Home Agents use a dedicated computer in that environment with no hard drive and no ability to retain client data outside our central secure office environment. With new technology and the right training there are a range of sensible and scalable security solutions that allow such fears to be overcome.

I am delighted to say that the future of UK homeworking does look brighter. Recent research by Plantronics and Customer Contact Association revealed that 61% of contact centres plan to increase their number of home-working agents. CCA conducted the survey on home-working trends among its members, which include many of Britain’s biggest companies across a wide range of industry sectors as well as major public sector employers. The report, which includes case studies of successful home-working operations, found that the average home-worker is older, better-educated and possesses broader life skills and experience than the average contact centre worker, widening the recruitment talent pool. Let’s hope that this time next year we have lots of positive customer service homeworking examples to discuss.

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