Question: We are looking to trial homeworking in our contact centre. Has anybody got any practical experience on running homeworking and in particular the management issues associated with managing people who are not in the office?
Read on to find out what advice some of our regular panellists offer… Answer courtesy of Sue Cooke:
America has been successfully making use of homeworkers for over 30 years, reaping 13-15% cost reductions, 10% more productivity and half the attrition. So how are we doing in the UK? Moving slowly with trepidation would sum it up! Visionary companies like the AA, National Express and Future Travel have successful homeworking strategies and have quoted comparable gains to the US Challenges.
Homeworkers are on their own
The homeworker working on their own needs self motivation, ability to plan and self discipline.
Making Knowledge work effectively for the homeworker:
• Gather every agent’s informal knowledge to set up an all-encompassing training programme
• Provide a centre-based ‘buddy’ as a point of help
• Dissect your training into ‘Bite-sized chunks’ and test understanding
• Develop computer-based knowledge to make learning easier
• The biggest challenge must be the skill of the team leader. This can be the make-or-break point for the success of the homeworking strategy.
Leaders in the home-working scenario have found that:
• Having separate teams for homeworkers works
• Having the same informal and formal communication for both homeworkers and contact centre based agents works
• Investing more time in developing communication and motivation skills for team leaders works
• Using the homeworkers to audit knowledge works
A word of caution from experience! Make sure the homeworker understands the impact on their family; no doorbells ringing, dogs barking, children playing, etc.
It seems that homeworking is definitely an option for consideration. The technology is available and productivity is easily measured so let’s listen to the pioneers, the likes of Future Travel, the AA, and National Express and fly the flag for the homeworker, and along the way you could make substantial savings for your own businesses.
Sue Cooke is a contact centre consultant at Budd.
Answer courtesy of Mike Purvis:
We have found contact centre homeworking to be a huge success for our staff and clients. Homeworkers benefit from the added convenience and flexibility of their jobs, and they save time by not having to commute or abide by rigid work shifts. Completed pilot projects have yielded significant performance improvements, with average handling times falling and efficiency increasing. The increase in job satisfaction has led to a reduction in attrition rates, which now measure 50-70 per cent lower than bricks and mortar call centres. Absenteeism and tardiness are also reduced, and productivity gains of up to 30 per cent are regularly achieved.Plus, staff satisfaction has had a positive impact on the overall quality of service provided to clients. The ability to match staffing requirements to call demand has improved and created significant cost reductions. At the same time, team leaders are still able to support and supervise the agents via chat, intranet, email and mobile phones.Transcom employs 250 homeworking contact centre professionals in the US and projects to have 400 home agents by the end of this year.
Transcom has just completed a homeworking pilot scheme in Sweden where a carefully chosen group of existing agents worked two shifts from home for every one in the call centre to deliver technical support to end-users of a leading telecom company’s Internet service.
We plan to pilot a homeworking scheme in the UK this year. Training in this UK scheme will be implemented virtually so recruits can come from various locations. Training will include lessons on using Transcom’s network, software applications for CRM, database management, performance measurements and secured access to client applications. In the planning stage, the scheme will employ up to 50 homeworkers. Based on projected demand, it aims to employ 200 home-based agents in the UK after six months.
Mike Purvis is UK MD Transcom WorldWide.
Answer courtesy of Karen Hodge:
When the ‘phenomenon’ of homeworking first started to emerge in the UK business market, the contact centre was not an immediate convert. After all, a contact ‘centre’ is by name a very self-sufficient, contained environment, whereby agents have all the information, tools and technology at their fingertips to be able to deliver an efficient service. As online technologies have developed and employees’ need for flexibility has grown, homeworking has quickly been accepted as a viable option for contact centre agents. Many contact centre staff have families, work part-time or may be studying, so they are often in need of working conditions which they can fit into their lives, rather than having to sacrifice any of their personal commitments.However, as with any new initiative, homeworking in contact centres is still something that is very much in the discussion stages, rather than an active part of companies’ policies. We have some developers who work from home, which is very effective due to the nature of their work. On the agent side of the business, homeworking is mostly used in special circumstances, such as the need for a 24-7 project or work that needs to be completed at unusual hours of the day.The industry is constantly adapting and with the technology all there and ready to go, it may not be long before homeworking becomes standard practice, and not just an extraordinary measure.
Karen Hodge is Head of Communications Centre, Broadsystem,
We also found that there are many issues relating to homeworking health and safety. Steve Mosser shares his views with us:
When a call centre operator decides to adopt homeworking, top of a long list of concerns raised by the HR department is Health & Safety (H&S).As the employer, you are responsible for the Health & Safety of your homeworkers. This is in itself quite a minefield: after all, you become responsible for a person in their home over which you have little, if no, direct control.It’s a big responsibility, to which, inevitably, you will need to give serious consideration. Having employed and managed hundreds of homeworkers in the UK, we had to get things right from the start to make sure that our HomeAgents were provided for and could thrive at serving our clients’ customers. So assuming that you are going down a homeworking DIY route and that you will be employing your future homeworkers, here are a few tips on how best to cover yourself while taking the best care of your homeworkers.
As the employer of your homeworkers, you will probably be providing a workstation kit comprising a desk, chair, computer and telephony equipment. Like your staff in the call centre, you will have to go down a checklist of equipment provided and make sure that each specific item of equipment is H&S compliant. You will also have to draw up specific terms and conditions for the homeworkers, which limit your responsibility for the agent to the proximity of their workstation. If, for example, the postman rings the doorbell and they fall down the stairs in their rush to answer, you are not then held responsible. You should also be open to the idea of the agents providing their own desk and chair, but this should only be done on a case-by-case basis.
Checking agent work space
Before recruiting a homeworker or deploying them in their home, you should send a team leader, following the guidelines on personal safety from the Suzie Lamplugh Trust, to check that the space reserved by the agent for homeworking is suitable and fulfils basic H&S criteria: measure the lighting, ensure the space has appropriate ventilation (minimum 20 cubic metres) and has a safe exit. It is also good practice to check with the agent that they will not be in the way of the family and vice versa. Finally, give some consideration to background noise in the home environment. We once had to refuse an agent because they had a noisy parrot!
You will then of course have to make sure the equipment is installed properly with no loose wires, no screen glare and that the set-up is comfortable for your homeworker. The best practice is to have a team leader act as the H&S executive during this exercise and sign off each installation with the agent’s signature. Have the team leader finalise the settings of the screen position, chair height and explain to the agent H&S best practice on position for long computer-based work. Once everything is in place, have the team leader confirm with the agent that positioning is optimal and comfortable.
Dos and Don’ts
The installation checklist needs to be signed off by the agent and team leader. On this document, there should be a clear list of dos and don’ts. For example, you should advise the agent that if he/she experiences any discomfort, they should immediately notify their team leader. Also, the agent should never change anything in the set-up without notifying the appropriate authority.
It will be key to establish a process of H&S self-certification via email or e-forms to avoid having the H&S executive do regular rounds to the homeworkers’ premises. This is a simple form that the homeworker fills in and signs certifying that nothing has changed with the set-up, that it is still comfortable for long hours of work and that the agent is not experiencing any physical strains from performing work from their workstation.
In the event a homeworker reports any kind of issue, this should be dealt with swiftly and responsibly just like any other organisational H&S matter.
All things considered, the difficulty with H&S in homeworking is that each case has to be given individual consideration as each home and home office is unique. A standardised approach and process will guarantee that you and your homeworker keep out of harm’s way.
Steve Mosser is Chief Executive Officer, Sensée HomeAgent Network.