A remote agent works from a location other than the traditional contact centre, which is usually their own home. They will often be supplied with computer and telephony equipment by the contact centre, the use of which can be closely monitored.
Employing off-site agents has long been an industry ambition. However, it has taken several years for the reliability of technologies related to Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) to reach levels that contact centres are comfortable deploying remotely.
Remote agents might handle only certain kinds of contact, decided through skills-based routing, or otherwise handle only email, webchat and social media enquires.
Why use remote agents?
There are clear benefits for the agent in being able to work from their own home. Saving time and money otherwise spent on commuting are significant bonuses in the minds of employees. There is also an element of prestige in being able to work from home, which may be a contributing factor in the lower attrition levels among remote agents.
Greater staff retention is certainly a major driver for contact centre operators, as the industry has a notoriously high level of turnover. There is also a much larger pool of candidates for employers to draw from. Several groups for whom travel is difficult – people with mobility issues, parents or carers with personal obligations – can more easily enter the workforce.
The number of eligible candidates is generally larger because proximity to a specific location is less significant. All that is required of a potential remote agent is a fast and reliable internet connection. Companies that are keen to boost their green credentials can also measure the benefit of remote agents who do not need to commute.
Once remote agents have been recruited, there are further advantages. While it is not always practical to ask on-site agents to work late or start early, this poses a much smaller challenge when travel is not an issue. There might not be a direct financial benefit to this, but the impact on morale of being able to offer in-house staff more sociable working hours can be immense.
Key issues with remote agents
Embracing this type of employment involves significant deviations from what is considered standard.
There are several additional costs in the recruitment, training and monitoring of remote agents which can make the business case harder to answer. The most immediate cost is the provision and installation of computer and telephony equipment. It will also be necessary to perform an evaluation of the suitability of the agent’s home as a workspace. This would look at issues such as background noise from roads, pets or children, and whether the candidate lives in shared accommodation.
The security of information available to agents who operate off-site is a major concern, and the sensitivity of the data agents handle is a key consideration. Robust security procedures need to be implemented, which may entail unscheduled monitoring.
Protocols for both regular communication and quality monitoring need to be developed and tested, with appropriate productivity levels established. In general, productivity levels are lower among remote agents than those who work in-house.
New applicants, while needing broadly the same practical skill set, must also be able to demonstrate an extremely good self-starter attitude. Psychometric testing might be a requirement for determining the temperament of agents who can work comfortably and reliably in their own home without becoming vulnerable to a sense of isolation.
The lack of real-world interaction also poses a challenge to managers, who will need to consider how they relate to off-site workers. It can take a great deal of interpersonal skill to develop a rapport with agents they seldom – or never – meet in person.
There is also a marked difference in age profile between a remote/ home agent and an office-based agent. The average age for an office-based contact centre agent is usually under 30. For a home-based agent, it tends to be over 40.