Allowing your staff to work remotely – particularly from home – can reap big benefits for your business. But it’s not the easiest work practice to put in place. Here, Gene Reynolds looks at the upsides and the downsides, before outlining how you can determine whether home-working really will work for you.
Have you seen the property section of your local paper recently? Not only can I not believe how much my little three-bed semi is worth, but I also can’t believe how the new house builds have changed in the short years that I have been living on this green little isle.
Just about every new house build these days is promoting this new concept. It may not be larger than a closet, but it is a major draw for any new buyer or career-minded worker that is aware of the paradigm change that’s happening in business today. You guessed it: it is called a study.
|An approach to ensure a successful home-working pilot
The fact that the construction market is building a small study on to nearly every new build out there is a signal that things are about to change. Broadband is growing. It is becoming faster and more secure, thus allowing more applications to be run from the home, including taking telephone calls over the Internet.
Even in places where broadband isn’t available, there are other ‘over the air’ services that promise 100% coverage of the UK with near Ethernet speeds. Resultantly, big business have been eyeing the opportunity to create home-working or teleworking strategies, sniffing out a way to eke out productivity and/or competitive advantage.
I’m sure you have heard all the hype before, but this isn’t hype, my friends. Some 2.2million people work from home at least one day a week here in the UK, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). That’s nearly 7.5% of the entire workforce.
It’s a large number, but when you look more closely at the figures, you will find that this number represents certain sectors of the workforce, such as sales or consultancy. Few contact centres, for example, have taken the brave move to introduce a home-working policy. Perhaps this is because of the concerns around productivity, expense, technology and the loss of interaction with colleagues.
I’m sure I don’t need to tease out the benefits of home-working in a contact centre, but heck I’m gonna do it anyway because I have a word count target to hit…
1) Increased labour pool. By offering home-working, you open up the door to thousands more potential employees who couldn’t normally travel to work, such as disabled people and/or parents.
2) Reduced real estate needs. In theory, you could set up a 1,000-seat contact centre with no more space than a broom closet. If all of your agents were home-workers, there would be no need for an airplane hangar.
3) Greater flexibility to meet peaks and troughs. In theory, you can ‘switch on’ more home-working agents faster than you can if they have to travel to work.
4) Increased employee retention rate. If this means that your highly skilled agents stay with you for an extra year, that equates to significant savings for your business.
These are some benefits, and you may discover others. But these four benefits alone would make your typical contact centre manager drool with envy. So why, then, are so few contact centres taking the plunge?
Drawbacks and things to bear in mind
As with everything in business, there are some perceived drawbacks to a teleworking strategy, and below are a few of the most common. Assess for yourself the significance of each of these drawbacks:
- No personal access to agents.
- Perceived loss of control – “If I can’t see them, I can’t control them.”
- Reduced productivity, although there are solutions to this.
- Security concerns. Is a person’s home secure? What about the agent using the PC to search the Internet?
- Home-based agents can reduce the productivity of those agents in the contact centre by asking them to find, read, copy or fax files that are not on hand at their home.
- There could be some resentment towards the home-workers by the non-home workers.
One reason why more contact centres are not in the teleworking gig could be the perceived preparation involved. You can’t just take a bunch of agents, dole out a mobile phone and send them home. And technology issues aside, there are a whole raft of issues your business needs to consider before you deploy your first teleworking agent. Here are the key areas you need to have an answer for:
1) Health and safety. Who will be responsible for the health and safety aspects of a homeworking agent? Will the company provide a desk, or will it just send out a representative to inspect the work area?
2) Changes to employee contracts. Depending on how the contract is laid out, the clauses may need to be re-worded to facilitate home-working.
3) IT and technology. How will this work? What is the responsibility of the company and what of the employee? Can it be tested, and what happens if something breaks down?
4) Insurance. What if a company PC catches fire and burns down a house. Whose responsibility is it? Is your company’s public liability insurance designed to cover home-working?
5) Management of home-working agents. Does a manager visit an agent? if so, how frequently? Also, will there be systems in place to monitor the productivity and schedule adherence of the agent?
6) Team working and meetings. How does the agent interact with the rest of their team?
Fortunately, these issues are not as onerous as you might think. A lot can be, or already have been, resolved. For example, most contact centre agents are reported on everything from length of call to the number of loo breaks they take. So being able to monitor performance isn’t too much of an issue. Sure, team interactions might be a little more difficult, but one suggestion may be to use Instant Messaging (IM) between team members. This is a technology that nearly everyone in a contact centre has had some experience in at some point in their lives, after all.
It is also important to note that most new teleworkers will be doing the job this way for the first time. It is important, therefore, to communicate what you expect of them while working from home. Here are some examples of the kind of thing they should be made aware of:
- How to plan for work undertaken at home.
- How long people should work at the PC before needing a break.
- How to handle interruptions from within the home and outside the home.
- How to keep focused in the flexible working environment.
My advice is to create a ‘best practice’ document for the teleworker to read that will give them some salient advice on the above.
Calculating the return on investment (ROI)
Finally, sometimes you need some good, old-fashioned equations around pounds and pence to prove to a business that teleworking will help save them money. Use the steps below as a guide to determine whether your environment is right for teleworking:
- Calculate how many people leave due to travelling to work being a problem.
- Calculate how many people leave due to a change in lifestyle – for example, their deciding to start a family.
- Then, work back to analyse the recruitment and training spend to get a new agent up to speed.
- If your contact centre plans for growth in to larger offices, using teleworkers could alleviate the need for floor space for those additional agents.
- If you are a revenue centre for your business, calculate the number of lost calls during a high peak period and work out the extra revenue that could be gained by home-workers being able to react quickly. Remember, one of the benefits of having a teleworking pool of people is the ability to get them ‘online’ quickly to handle a peak of call activity.
Ultimately, bringing teleworking in to your contact centre will require a little work. However, the potential benefits will outweigh the cost and effort involved in setting it up – especially if your contact centre requires a unique skill set. You can start as slowly as you need in the beginning. But, ultimately, teleworking will enrich your operation in terms of flexibility, staff retention and profitability. Now, go and read that property section…
Gene Reynolds is a Director at Blackchair