Should Agents Telecommute?

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Faced with high turnover rates and a tight labor market, some in the call center industry are renewing an idea that seemed all but dead just a few years ago: the notion of call center reps working from home.

The idea didn't die because of feasibility. In fact, for most of the last 10 years it's been possible to wire call center reps to the center from just about anywhere, especially when access to ISDN was available. (You don't need ISDN to make this happen anymore thanks to the Internet.) Several major ACDs were open to that kind of link, and the software to remotely manage the agents could be had, albeit for a price.

No, what pushed it aside was that it removed agents from the direct control of their supervisors. Often it was difficult to show quantifiable reasons why you should go out of your way to let people work from home. In any industry, letting people work from home is a giant step for management. In call centers, it's the equivalent of an earthquake.

And yet, subtly the idea is catching on in the rest of society. One study showed that in 1997 there were 11 million telecommuters in the United States, up substantially from just a few years before.

Internet Reshapes Structure of Call Center

That same study (by the International Telework Association) suggests that telecommuting's feasibility is enhanced by access to advanced technologies, such as the Internet and personal computers. An estimated 31 percent of telecommuters used the Internet, more than double the average home usage rate, and 75 percent of them used personal computers, up from 59 percent in 1995.

There are two things to take away from those figures. First, 1997 was only the beginning of the Internet wave. We would expect those percentages to be higher now. Second, at the same time the Internet is reshaping the nature of work, it is reshaping the organization of the call center. As these trends dovetail, the call center becomes a more attractive place to implement creative job structures - if you can wean managers from having daily physical contact with their reps.

There are powerful arguments in favor of having some portion of your call center agents telecommute. One of the biggest is the morale boost and the resulting money you'll save on training when they stick around for a long, long time.

Call center workers are ideal candidates for telecommuting. Anecdotal evidence suggests that most people who work from home are employed by small companies with fewer than 100 employees.

One reason why smaller companies tend to lead the way in telecommuting is their informal management style makes testing the idea easier. The companies that benefit most from having employees work from home are those which have a workforce made up primarily of information workers or service workers. Many call centers have employees that fall into both categories.

Switches (and their software) have evolved to the point where agents can log into an ACD and receive calls at home in exactly the same fashion as if they were sitting at a desk in the center. Their desktop can receive the same screen pop of data. And most important, the agent appears on the supervisor's terminal in real time so they can be counted, evaluated, monitored, and communicated with. Switches from Aspect and Rockwell, among several others, offer advanced and transparent home-agent capabilities.

Why Consider It?

Why would anyone spend even a penny to have agents work at home? There are several good reasons.

• Increased productivity. Trials have shown that workers are more productive at home. The main reason for this may be that there are fewer interruptions. That the telecommuters are more comfortable at home and avoid the stress of commuting may also contribute.

• Reduced training costs. There are many advantages to decreasing turnover, but the bottom-line benefit is the reduction of training costs. One company saved more than $10,000 per telecommuting employee. The bulk of that was money saved on training.

• Retention of employees when they move. With two-career couples now the rule, not the exception, it is easy to lose a valued employee because a spouse's job requires relocation. Companies can retain the knowledge and experience of these workers by having them telecommute from their new home.

• Retention of employees with family obligations. Today's workers have obligations to both ends of the age spectrum. A worker may leave a job to care for a child or elderly parent. While working at home is usually not possible when young children or seriously ill adults must be cared for, flexible work schedules let telecommuters fit in part-time work when they are free from their other responsibilities.

This also allows you to tap a hidden source for call center staff - the spouses of your reps. They know your business and may only need minimal training before they are ready to serve as part-timers on-call in a pinch.

• Provide call coverage in emergencies. Almost every region periodically experiences a natural disaster that makes it difficult or impossible for agents to reach the call center.

Agents can work at home temporarily when disasters disrupt roads or damage call centers. It provides you with an instantly accessible backup plan for many low-grade problems.

• Provide a new source of employees. Adding at-home agents outside the traditional commuting distance is one way to expand the workforce without the expense of opening another call center.

One thing most companies with successful telecommuting programs have in common is the ability to successfully manage their workers remotely. The main reason companies don't explore telecommuting is fear of lack of control. But with today's systems, supervisors can monitor agents' work as if they were sitting in the call center. It is possible to randomly access both computer screens and telephone calls as if the agent were in the same building.

Who Gets the Nod?

It is important for a company to put prospective telecommuters through a selection process. Agents should earn the right to work at home.

You should have stringent requirements for the selection of agents that participate in a work-at-home program. Reps should be evaluated on work performance, including attendance, promptness and productivity. Then the agents' homes might be inspected for size, electrical wiring and other factors important for choosing an office site.

Experts say managing the expectations and feelings of those workers "left behind" in the office is a key part of any successful telecommuting program. It is not just managers who have to know that the work-at-homer is producing. Co-workers must know also.

Telecommuting is not for every call center or every agent. But it's a good idea to have some capacity to plug in agents from home, if only for redundancy and peak coverage.

Imagine: A sudden call spike comes in at some strange, unpredicted hour. You do not have the staff in the center, and it would take you at least several hours to get enough people in the seats to cover it.

Wouldn't it be great to be able to call 10 people at home and ask them to log in from their PCs? Pay them a great overtime rate, and you've solved myriad problems at one blow. Extra cash in their pockets, better service, your stats look great and it's all achievable with very little extra technology. Something to think about.

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