Over the last few months, organizations across the world have relocated their contact center agents from cubicals to comfy couches (or hopefully kitchen tables and desks.) Regardless of the furniture, the point is, most contact centers have adopted a work-from-home model in a very short amount of time. Every day we see leaders of countries and companies alike trying to balance their message to stakeholders– these are extraordinary times, but at the same time, we must also do what we can to maintain normalcy and business as usual.
In communicating with your agents at home, contact center leaders also need to try and balance that message. Help your agents understand that this is both business as usual and business “unusual” at the same time and make it clear to them that you as their leader understand the challenge of their circumstances. This will help build a strong culture and harness the power of your remote workforce.
Business as usual
While agents’ physical locations may differ, the job at hand remains the same - your customers are still relying on them for the same high-quality support they’ve come to expect. So, while it might sound easier said than done, agents should strive to operate the same as when they are in the office and aim to deliver the same level of service despite the circumstances. That means agents should be able to leverage the same technology, follow the same processes, and deliver the same level of customer support.
Technology. If your agents were able to relocate to work from home quickly, odds are that your contact center is using cloud contact center software. And at that, it’s probably the same technology that your agents are accustomed to using every day in the office. So, the continuity of your technology from office to home will promote feelings of normalcy. Same agent interface, same system, just different scenery.
Focus on Business Priorities. The content and frequency of communication leaders have with work-from-home agents also play a role in helping convey the message of business as usual. Leaders should try to ensure that their communications with agents don’t dwell on the outliers of today’s circumstances – pandemic news, quarantine, etc. – but rather focus on typical business priorities and outcomes.
Just as in a brick-and-mortar setting, teams need a clear understanding of business priorities. Maintaining consistency in processes and policies is important, and regardless of physical location, agents are expected to meet certain performance standards and KPIs. Albeit, some may need to be relaxed given the circumstances (we’ll get to that in the “business unusual” section). Continue to track and communicate agent progress against goals for KPIs. Ideally your contact center software provides dashboards that arm agents with real-time insights from home, but if not, ensure agents are getting updates via email or virtual meetings periodically throughout the workday to keep them engaged. Also, to help diminish any feelings of isolation that may set in, communicate everyday successes and wins, much like you would in the office.
At the same time, leaders do need to take into account that none of this is “normal.” Leaders who do not personally acknowledge the unique stress agents are under while working from home will appear insensitive and out of touch. Right now, agents are juggling work, home-schooling children, the stress of isolation, and the anxiety of a pandemic all at the same time. While the overarching goal should be to deliver the same level of service, leaders must also ensure they are being realistic. With a few tweaks to existing approaches and business processes, leaders can improve the engagement of their work-from-home agents.
Realistic goals. As stated previously, some contact center metrics may need to be loosened or refocused. For example, perhaps your typical average handle time or service levels goals are not feasible right now. Or maybe, the contact center needs to de-prioritize new proactive outbound contacts in order to focus all resources on managing and handling existing customers. If any changes are made, it is important that agents be aware of the new, temporary expectations.
While performance is still incredibly important – we know, businesses have bills to pay too! – now might not be the most appropriate time to bring down the hammer on an employee or start a new performance improvement plan.
Understand individual agent circumstances. Additionally, managers should work with agents to understand their individual home and family situations and rethink schedules where possible and needed. For example, are they trying to home-school because school is out? Or are they caring for an ill loved one and need to take them to appointments? These are all important factors to know as a supervisor.
Deliberate supervisor engagement. These bizarre times also call for leaders to consider the mental health and engagement of their agents even more than usual. As stated, working from home for prolonged periods can become lonely and isolating for employees. Supervisors and managers may need to communicate more and make themselves even more accessible than in the office. Agents can no longer flag their supervisors over for advice or walk into their office. But they should make themselves just as available by clearly letting agents know the best mechanism to reach them for escalations or other questions, and by scheduling regular check-ins throughout the week. Supervisors can block off time each day on their calendars to ensure they are consistently available to give advice.
Agent quality and coaching. Agents will also need the same level of coaching and development as they would receive in the office to stay engaged. Now is not the time to let quality fall to the back burner. Supervisors and coaches should hold regular evaluation debriefs and coaching sessions with the same frequency as they typically do in the office.
But again, in a remote model, leaders must be even more thoughtful and deliberate in how they go about their coaching and feedback, since a drive-by high-five or pat on the back is no longer an option. These scheduled meetings are not only a great time to discuss performance and work through obstacles but are also the perfect time to do those mental health checks and discuss those unique home situations. While the frequency of the coaching conversations should stay the same, leaders should try to use video where possible to ensure they can take agent body language and reception to feedback into account.
Team collaboration. For some agents, the contact center is their family, so it’s incredibly unusual for them to not see their peers every day either. It’s important to find ways to promote team camaraderie from afar. Provide tools for agents to communicate among peers, like instant message and other enterprise business chat technologies.
Encourage the use of video collaboration rather than phone conference calls to replace that lost face time and humanize interactions. According to recent COVID-19 Work-from-Home Employee Engagement Research by NICE inContact and NICE Satmetrix, 42% of agents strongly agree that video conferencing/calls with peers increases efficiency and communication.
Also, if you don’t have a party planning or events committee, now might be the time to implement one! This committee can help schedule virtual coffee breaks, drive peer praise, or organize theme days in which agents dress up and submit a photo to share with the team.
Business Unusual won’t last forever
One of the most important things for contact center leaders and agents alike to remember is this “new normal” will soon be the “old normal,” and we will all just be normal again! But in all seriousness, while these are trying times, agents are looking at their contact center leaders to set the tone. Balance the message that while things are crazy – and you completely empathize with that – we all still have work to be done.
Want more tips on how to adapt coaching, training and communication practices to restore team productivity and performance for work-from-home agents? Register for our upcoming interactive CRMXchange webinar “Agent Coaching and Engagement for Remote Service Excellence” on June 16th. I’ll share some of my first-hand experiences fostering and maintaining comradery and collaboration with peers as a full-time remote employee and share real-life tips from NICE inContact customers who have recently – and rapidly – shifted to a work-from-home model.