Off Center
Being such a big proponent of the home agent model, I love hearing about organizations that have kicked talented staff out of the contact center. I particularly love hearing about traditionally conventional organizations that have done so after seeing the light. So when I heard that the Employees Retirement System of Texas – a government entity – had a successful virtual program in place (and has for several years), I was eager to feature them here.

Following is my interview with ERS’s Assistant Director Scott Murphy about his contact center’s thriving work-at-home initiative.   

How long has ERS’ home agent program been in place? What were the main reasons your contact center decided to go virtual?

We started our home agent program about four years ago. Our initial goal was to create a disaster recovery option that would allow our call center to operate in the event that our building had to be evacuated, was damaged, or lost power for an extended period of time, etc. This was also at a time when gas costs were very high and we were looking at alternatives for our employees to save money by not having to commute to work.

Being a government institution, were there added obstacles in getting the green light for the home agent initiative? 

Luckily, ERS is very progressive when it comes to new ideas and different ways of thinking when it comes to solving problems, so the support of our senior leadership was there. That being said, we did have some very large obstacles to overcome. Since we deal with health insurance and financial related matters, we had to satisfy the requirements to protect our members’ private information. We collaborated across the agency and with other organizations to understand best-practices when it came to issues related to work-at-home programs that dealt with sensitive and private information. Through that process, some of the things we determined were to require our home agents to work in a room that can be closed off from the rest of the residence by a door. We require that our home agents not allow others, including other family members, etc., in the room while they are working. We use monitoring tools that allow us to ensure these practices are being followed, and the home agents are required to sign a contract outlining all of the requirements before they are deployed to work at home.

How many home agents did the ERS program start with? How many home agents are there currently? Do you expect to grow the program significantly?

We are a small contact center with about 35 total seats, which includes the work-at-home employees. We started slowly with two [home agents] to prove the concept. Once we realized it was working, we ramped up to 10 full-time home agents, which is what we still have today. We may explore other home agent options for some of our back office departments in the future, but have no set plans at this time.

What impact (if any), has the home agent initiative had on the following:

-Recruiting and retention?
I think it has a minimal impact on recruiting, but a much larger impact on retention. We currently only send our more tenured employees home so our new-hires may have to wait before they are eligible based on availability.  When employees are hired they know we have a home agent program, but they also know that they may have to wait before they are able to work at home so it is not really something that impacts the recruiting effort. However, retention is a key benefit. Our home agents are much more likely to stay in their positions for much longer periods of time. Our average tenure for our work-at-home agents is about four years compared to about a year for our in-house agents.

We did see an initial spike in productivity through higher availability when we first launched the program. However, over time, that gain has adjusted and is now just slightly higher than the in-house. We do see lower average handle times for our at home agents, which it is most likely due to their longer tenure in addition to fewer environmental distractions at home.

Performance quality is consistent with our in-house employees.

-Staffing flexibility?
Our hours of operation are 7:30 am to 5:30 pm Monday through Friday, which creates some unique challenges since our peaks occur in the morning and late afternoon. The home agents are much more likely to work split shifts that allow us to staff higher during the peak periods. We provide some of our home agents with a two-hour lunch, which allows them to take care of errands, go to the gym, etc. and allows us to schedule them to start their shift at 7:30 and end their shift at 5:30.

-Facility expenses?
Facility expenses really have not changed; however, we were able to maximize the space in a more productive way.

Do you ever hire agents to work from home immediately, or must they first work onsite for a set period of time?

Due to the complexity of the types of calls, we have found it difficult to move a newer employee to a home agent position. Our home agents are more tenured employees that have already been fully trained. 

How do you provide continuous training and coaching to home agents?

We have an online knowledge base that supports the ongoing general call handling information, and we bring them into the office once a month to handle any recurrent or required training. 

How do you keep home agents “in the loop” and feeling like a part of the “brick & mortar” team?

We did have a challenge with our home agents feeling like they were not part of the team, and we noticed we were experiencing some mild morale issues as a result of the isolation. We decided to incorporate cameras so that the supervisors could have video “face-to-face” conversations whenever they called their home agents. We also use video conferencing software that allows the supervisors to incorporate the home agents into team meetings. We also discovered, during one of our fire drills, that the home agents were not aware of the drill and were concerned about the sudden spike in the queue and not being able to reach anyone on site. We have since added a camera to our intranet site that displays the contact center and allows the home agents to see what is going on in the contact center in real time. Now when a fire drill occurs, our home agents can see that the contact center is empty.

What would you say is the biggest challenge of implementing and managing a home agent program?

I would say that the biggest challenge for us was figuring out how to protect the sensitive data that we handle and creating processes that minimize the risk. 

What quick advice do you have for contact center managers who are considering implementing a home agent initiative of their own?

Talk to other organizations that have implemented work-at-home programs because there are a lot of lessons that other organizations have learned that may be beneficial to your company. Search contact center industry message boards for information related to work-at-home programs.

ERS – The Big Picture
Contact center locations: Austin, Texas; Harlingen, Texas (outsourcer)
Hours of operation: 7:30 am to 5:30 pm, Monday-Friday
Number of agents employed: 35 plus outsourcer
Products/services supported/provided: Employee benefits to State of Texas employees and retirees
Channels handled: Phone, web self-service, Facebook, IVR, email, face-to-face
What’s so great about them: They are one of the few government organizations that have embraced the home agent model, resulting in several big benefits for the contact center – namely increased retention of talented agents and more flexible staffing.

For more on the blazing hot topic of home agents, be sure to check out the following OFF CENTER resources:

"The State of Home Agent Staffing" (research report) -
“10 Reasons Your Call Center Should Use Home Agents” -
“Making Home Agents Feel ‘At Work’” -
“Home Agents: A Call Center Game-Changer” -
“Contact Centerfold” article on VPI Pet Insurance -
“On the Phone at Home” (song parody) - (After clicking link, scroll to the third song sample on the page.)

In addition, my ebook – Full Contact contains ample info on home agent programs, as well as a comprehensive sample work-at-home agent agreement donated by a real contact center. So be sure to buy about 12 copies of the ebook.

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